Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.17: Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 37 (C)

At a certain point in Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist, I felt compelled to say to myself “Son of a bitch, how much longer is this thing?”.  Following the critical success of The Pianist, it’s understandable that Polanski might stay in the relatively restrained mode that finally won him his Oscar. It’s also understandable that he might want to finally make a movie that his kids could see. And considering Polanski’s own tumultuous childhood, it’s easy to see why adapting Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist might have been a tempting proposition. But Jesus Almighty, how did he manage to make it this undistinguished?

There’s barely any reason to go into plot details, considering how closely it follows Dickens’ famous novel, but here we go: Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) is an orphan in 1800s England, not exactly the nicest way to spend one’s childhood. After being forced into an apprenticeship with a cruel group of undertakers, Oliver runs away to London, where he falls into a group of thieves led by the eccentric Fagin (Ben Kingsley) and the frightening Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman). When Oliver is later taken in by a kind man, he’s torn between the promise of happiness and the cruelty of his past life.

Polanski’s smart use of perspective and mastery of suspense is evident, as always, but it’s largely undercut by the fact that we’ve seen this damn story a thousand times before, and better. Whether it was in David Lean’s indelible 1948 version, the popular stage musical adaptation Oliver!, or Carol Reed’s bloated but moderately charming film adaptation of the musical, the “Please sir, I want some more” and characters and situations are far too familiar, and Polanski doesn’t update it enough to make anything of interest.

Rather, he seems to have simply decided that adapting Dickens’ novel faithfully was enough. It doesn’t help that the film has the same drab look as the latter parts of The Pianist, but without the earlier film’s gradual draining of color that made it effective. Instead, it just looks like a dully illustrated picturebook. What’s worse, the performances don’t much stand out either. Ben Kingsley’s hammy Fagin at least provides some energy for the otherwise lifeless film, but it pales in comparison to Alec Guinness or Ron Moody. Still, it’s better than the dull versions of Bill Sykes and Dodger that make one pine for Oliver!’s terrifying Oliver Reed and delightful Jack Wild.

What’s most exasperating is that the titular Twist is as dull as the character has ever been. This is saying something, considering that Oliver Twist was never one of Dickens’ best defined characters, mostly a prop to whisk around Victorian London in order to show the city’s inadequacies. One could make the argument that Clark is supposed to be another Polanski surrogate, but he’s too blankly wide-eyed (what I’ve dubbed “Freddie Highmore Syndrome”) to make much of an impression. The kid suffers from FHS so badly that I can’t help but feel I was a way too harsh on Asa Butterfield’s inadequate Scorsese-surrogate in Hugo. He’s the perfect face for Polanski’s least distinctive movie, his equivalent to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood: a film that superficially looks like an auteur’s work if one squints hard enough, but which is too familiar and dull to register.

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