Monday, September 12, 2005

TIFF 2005: "OLIVER TWIST" (Review)

(Special Presentations, UK/Czech Republic/France/Italy, 130 minutes)
Written by: Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Charles Dickens
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Cast: Barney Clark, Ben Kingsley, Leanne Rowe, Jamie Foreman, Edward Hardwicke, Harry Eden

What can one possibly say about another handsomely mounted and oh-so-austere adaptation of an esteemed literary classic? One starring a "Sir", no less? Short of taking astonishingly misguided liberties on the level of 1996's inane Demi Moore vehicle "The Scarlett Letter", these things are largely critic proof--as if daring to suggest a flaw would expose the reviewer as some sort of semi-literate couch potato whose idea of "literature" is John Grisham. A Grisham talking book.

As it is, there's little to quibble about with this rare family-friendly entry from the usually controversial Roman Polanski. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood has made some minor changes to the 1838 classic (mostly structural--so gone is the subplot involving Oliver's half-brother "Monks"), but what results is a worthy equal to David Lean's definitive take, mostly because it feels so personal, despite being a tale oft-told (this is at least the 20th screen adaptation, including the famous musical!) and lampooned (remember the animated kitty singing the Billy Joel songs?).

Does anyone out there not know this story? Young Oliver Twist (Clark) arrives at a filthy British workhouse on his ninth birthday, having been left an orphan of the state after his mother died during childbirth. Daring to defy the strict rules of the house--demanding more food, questioning authority--he is sold to an undertaker as an apprentice, where the sadistic taunts of Noah, an older apprentice, forces him to flee to London.

There, he hooks up with a network of young street toughs led by The Artful Dodger (Eden), who introduces him to Fagin (Kingsley), a wizened kingpin who takes care of his boys in return for the rewards of their considerable skills as thieves and pickpockets. Fagin's partner is the malignant Bill Sykes (Foreman), whose teenaged mistress Nancy (Rowe) shows Oliver sympathy.

After a robbery goes wrong, Oliver is adopted by the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (Hardwicke), who feels he can reform the boy through kindness, patience, and the fine arts. With Fagin and Sykes conspiring to snatch Oliver back, Nancy goes to Mr. Brownlow with a warning and pays for her defiance to her master with her life. Oliver will need all of his worldly experience and the help of his friend Dodger and even cruel Noah to evade the psychotic Sykes...

Since the story hinges on the charm of its titular character, 11-year old Barney Clarke has taken on quite the challenge for his screen debut. He's a wonderful discovery--in an impressive turn perhaps somewhat more "reactive" than we remember the character, and he bears more than a passing resemblence to the director (who's a noted performer himself). He's well matched by another young old soul: Harry Eden, who embodies The Artful Dodger's whiley charm and eventual crisis of regret with a skill that betrays his own relative newcomer status (although he'll soon appear in another Dickens adaptation, "Bleak House").

Sir Ben Kingsley's turn as Fagin is a gentler take on the character--despite his grotesque makeup--who is a craftier and more nefarious exploiter of his boys in the novel, and there explicitly caricatured as Jewish. Here, Fagin's prepubescent crime ring seems to exist out of economic and social necessity, in response to the hardships of the times and society's dubious concept of child welfare. Upon his final meeting with his imprisoned guardian, Oliver thanks Fagin for being kind--an added line not from Dickens.

The colourful supporting characters--from the evil Bill Sykes to the trusting Mr. Brownlow, are perfectly realized and avoid the obvious caricatures. Polanski's direction is decidely "European", in that it moves at a deliberate pace and finds "character" in its many environments as much as in its leads, but the patient will find this evocative and often relentlessly bleak take on the classic tale a moving experience that aspires to something more than a "boy's own" confection, perhaps to its detriment given the often over-caffeinated pace of most of today's kid friendly romps.