It's seldom a good sign when a director announces that he has made a movie primarily for his own children – and Oliver Twist, reportedly designed to delight little Morgane and Elvis (!) Polanski, who both also appear in tiny roles, duly proves a decidedly underwhelming and perfunctory adaptation of Charles Dickens' ever-popular novel. It certainly doesn't help matters that Barney Clark is a somewhat colourless presence as the cipher-like title character, a young orphan personifying "goodness and innocence" who finds cruelty and kindness in roughly equal measure on the mean streets of mid-19th-century London.
For budgetary reasons the production was mainly filmed in Prague, and it shows: as with the similarly Czech-lensed From Hell, there's something naggingly phoney about the many street-scenes (not least that the light is never quite right). The indoor stuff works much better: here, among the mostly gloomy, convincingly unhygienic interiors, we can concentrate more fully on the "turns" from a cast packed full of reliable Brit character-actors. Misleadingly top-billed in what's really a beefed-up supporting role as Fagin, the wheedling criminal mastermind of a pickpocketing gang which (briefly) welcomes the hapless Oliver into their midst, Ben Kingsley - sorry, Sir Ben Kingsley – seems to be channelling (the great) Wilfrid Brambell's Albert Steptoe as a gentle-voiced, disarmingly sympathetic old coot who even gets a heartstring-tugging jailcell farewell.
As Fagin's kind-hearted junior colleague Nancy, Leanne Rowe contributes perhaps the most striking performance in what is, admittedly, a showcase of a tragic, doomed-tart role, while Harry Eden (from Pure) has some fun as star pickpocket The Artful Dodger. At the other end of the age spectrum, the indefatigable Liz Smith gets a brief, nice cameo as 'Old Woman', while admirers of four-legged performers will be delighted by the contributions from white mastiff 'Turbo' as Bullseye, not-so-faithful hound of hissable cock-er-nee villain Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman, somewhat indulged).
Ronald Harwood's script takes some daring liberties with the source material, but nevertheless falls short of successfully transferring Dickens' sprawling, quintessentially literary material into the very different cinematic form. What results is an intrusively scored, episodic, only intermittently watchable affair that while improving in the somewhat grim final third, constantly suffers in comparison with the still-fresh memories of the last major Dickens adaptation, Douglas McGrath's underrated Nicholas Nickleby (2002).
In the wake of his critical, commercial and Oscar-laden success with The Pianist, Polanski presumably had pretty much carte blanche to pursue whatever project he wanted: it's therefore baffling and disappointing that the man once capable of terrific pictures like Chinatown, Cul de Sac and Rosemary's Baby, and who himself had such a famously nightmarish childhood, should now serve up such a lukewarm, inert Oliver Twist.
26th September, 2005
OLIVER TWIST : [5/10] : France (Fr-UK-Cze) 2005 : Roman POLANSKI : 130 mins
seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle (UK), 23rd September 2005 – press show