One of the few pleasures consistently denied modern children is the opportunity to wallow for an hour or two in tales of childhood angst and horror unencumbered by pluck or uplift. Whether this is an accurate reflection of contemporary childhood (at least among the filmgoing classes) is hard to say, but if there's such a thing anymore as a melancholy kid in touch with his or her own powerlessness, he or she isn't getting much satisfaction at the movies these days.
Who better, then, than Roman Polanski, master of the grotesque and an authority on the cruel vagaries of fate, to add an adaptation of "Oliver Twist" to an already heaping pile? Polanski's version, though handsomely realized, is a fairly conventional rendering of the novel that probably won't be counted among his best films. But as his first movie for children, it's striking in the way it revisits the director's abiding themes, dialed down for a PG-13 rating.
The director one website categorizes under the heading Filmmaker/Actor/Fugitive has more in common with the Victorian novelist than might be apparent at first glance. Like Charles Dickens, Polanski tells stories about innocents imperiled by fate, corruption and the institutionalized hypocrisy of the powers that be. Then there's the fact of his own Dickensian childhood: During World War II, Polanski escaped from a Jewish ghetto in Kraków, Poland, shortly before his parents were sent to concentration camps. He survived, much like Oliver, by aligning himself with street gangs and relying on the kindness (where he could get it) of strangers.
But if Dickens emerged from his difficult childhood (separated from his family, sent to work in a factory) as a champion of the dispossessed whose work helped change laws regarding child labor and the age of consent, Polanski has tended to dwell on the psychological effects of a particularly grotesque kind of systematic victimization. His victims — which is to say, his protagonists — suffer grievously for an identity that has been imposed or defined by others. So it comes as no surprise that his identification with Oliver is eerily palpable. Not only does Barney Clark, who plays Oliver, make for a credible, if more beautiful, Polanski as a child, he seems to radiate a painful craving for love and a sense of outrage at his character's fate in more or less equal measure. Brought before a magistrate who will oversee his transfer from the workhouse to the custody of a terrifying chimney sweep, Oliver looks up at him with an expression that seems to reflect all the injustice in the world, a single tear signaling his rage and grief.
Shot in Prague, meticulously designed by Allan Starski, photographed by Pawel Edelman and costumed by Anna Sheppard, Polanski's Victorian England is grimy, loud and crowded with thugs, fools and villains. But whereas David Lean's 1948 adaptation (which seems otherwise to have served as a source of inspiration), creates an expressionistic nightmare world of harsh shadows, off-kilter angles and stark, Gothic menace inspired by the original George Cruickshank illustrations, Polanski has created something subtly crueler, inspired by the moody illustrations of Doré: a world in which warmth, beauty and kindness exist just beyond Oliver's grasp.
The story opens on Oliver's ninth birthday, when he is summarily dispatched to a workhouse by the group of self-satisfied jackasses that compose the board of the orphanage where he's lived until then. Soon after his arrival, Oliver draws a short straw and is made to ask for a second helping of gruel. The incident leads to his being pawned off as an apprentice to an undertaker. Eventually escaping to London, he is taken under wing by a young pickpocket known as the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) and taken to Fagin (Ben Kingsley), who runs a home for young thieves.
If Alec Guinness' Fagin, with his disturbing physical resemblance to anti-Semitic caricatures of the 1930s, sparked outrage, Kingsley's Fagin is likelier to cause bewilderment. Covered in grime and matted nests of hair and missing all but his two front teeth, Kingsley resembles a repulsive, though not entirely unfriendly, rat. Unlike the violent thug Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman), Fagin walks a line between exploiter of children and grotesque mother hen. By the time Oliver reaches Fagin's lair, he's had two gruesome jobs and narrowly avoided a third, but he's never been shown anything resembling affection. Having walked for seven straight days to get to London, Oliver is more grateful for Fagin's kindness than anything else. Gratitude surfaces again when Oliver winds up with Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), a gentleman who takes him home after Oliver is wrongly accused of robbing him.
In the biggest departure from the book, Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood have omitted references to the family connection between Brownlow and Oliver, eliminating the part of the story that explains Oliver's provenance and his rightful place in Brownlow's home. In Polanski's version, Oliver remains a boy whose past and family connections have been erased, and his position remains inalterably one of reliance on a stranger's arbitrary kindness. It's this sort of luck, which visits Oliver at irregular but well-timed intervals, that save him from corruption, exploitation and death, which seem to await him at every turn. That Polanski chose this as the movie he wanted to make for his own children feels motivated by more than a septuagenarian dad's desire to take a $60-million stab at a bedtime story. It feels inspired by a need to tell them who he is.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for disturbing images
Times guidelines: Some tense scenes of children in peril, suggestion of violence
From Tristar Pictures. Director Roman Polanski. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood. Producers Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde, Roman Polanski. Director of Pphotography Pawel Edelman. Editor Hervé de Luze. Music Rachel Portman. Production design Allan Starski. Costumes Anna Shephard. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.