Opens Fri Sept 30
Nearly every inhabitant of the Western World is familiar with Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. A classic ideal of beaten-down childhood, Oliver's an impossibly knocked around orphan who goes from factory laborer to apprentice/slave to runaway to hapless and hungry pickpocket—and then to charity case, abduction victim, and, at last, virtuous and wealthy pint-sized gentleman.
Roman Polanski, coming off of 2002's The Pianist, is a tantalizing figure for Oliver Twist's most recent reinterpretation. (By the way, who the hell is demanding that this particular story be retold with such regularity?) But Polanski directs a wax museum of a film, telling the story in a rote, straightforward manner. Some will appreciate this preservation, while others will take issue with the fact that Polanski doesn't bother with what seems an obligatory acknowledgement of the anti-Semitism found in the novel (as directed towards Ben Kingsley's Fagin, the elderly ringleader of the urchin pickpockets).
But what's more important than either of those perspectives is the fact that there's something lifeless in Polanski's Oliver Twist, despite the appearance of all the tools and resources being available. The sets and cinematography are a beautiful, imaginative rendition of Victorian London, complete with scurrying rats, London Bridge mists, and cacophonous markets. There's also some fine casting and acting, particularly with Barney Clark's Oliver and Kingsley's Fagin. Yet there's no passion—with all of Twist's faithfulness, the magic is missing, or possibly the inspiration has been edited out, leaving a competent but vacant walkthrough. While I usually prefer classics to remain classics, this movie makes me wish that Polanski had done the cinematic equivalent of the VW Bug redesign to Oliver Twist. I may hate the way that stupid car looks, but at least its ugliness elicits something other than a boring familiarity with going through the motions.