By Gareth Jenkins
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A New Twist on Dickens

This article is over 18 years, 5 months old
Gareth Jenkins is impressed by Polanski's latest film.
Issue 300

I groaned when asked to review a film adaptation of such a well known classic as Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. I groaned even more when I read the publicity bumf before the screening. Yet another piece of whimsy, I thought, in period costume.

However, I was wrong. This new film adaptation – the first since David Lean’s 1948 version and the musical some 40 years ago – has real strengths. Polanski and his formidable screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, have pared Dickens’s large loose baggy monster of a novel down to its essentials. In the process they have cut the worst of the sentimental and melodramatic elements to create a much tauter, more compelling plot-line.

Missing is anything to do with the mystery of Oliver’s birth or family. Instead we concentrate on Oliver’s progress from workhouse inmate (and Polanski’s version of the famous moment when the starved boy asks for more is as good as Lean’s), to member of Fagin’s gang of juvenile thieves, to his adoption by the kindly, liberal-minded and wealthy Mr Brownlow.

Oliver is ‘saved’ from the fate that he seems inevitably doomed to because of his innocence, which moves others to help and protect him. In the novel it turns out that Oliver is socially well born (if illegitimate). So it is his unknown genteel origins that protect him from being infected by the criminal company he keeps. He would have forfeited the family inheritance if Fagin, in his conspiracy with Oliver’s legitimate, but evil, half-brother, had succeeded in criminalising him.

But this far from progressive ‘message’, that ‘blood’ will out whatever the circumstances, is contradicted by the novel itself. Again and again characters and scenes suggest a radical alternative: don’t be so quick to condemn those at the bottom of the pile as ‘criminals’. It’s the environment to blame: get rid of slums and poverty and human beings would change. Hence the unmistakable sympathy that pervades the novel for the ‘common’ people (criminals and all): it is the Artful Dodger and his cronies who have energy and life, qualities completely absent from the insipid middle class characters (including Oliver himself).

So Polanski has done well to cut this side of the novel, even if he has created a bit of a problem for himself since he has also cut the rationale for Oliver’s salvation.

Never mind. What saves the film, without doubt, is Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Fagin, which is brilliant. This is not simply to do with the fact that he is a very good actor. I can’t help thinking it has to do with a quite different context for the film – Polanski’s own background as a child in Nazi-occupied Poland. His parents were deported to concentration camps (his mother died in Auschwitz, his father survived) and he himself was taken in by a succession of Polish families. This sense of survival in a world of night and fog seems to permeate Oliver’s world. He enters the workhouse, in the opening scene, through gates surmounted by words that recall ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’.

It is no more than a hint. But there is something else that points to the world of the Holocaust – and that is Fagin’s Jewishness. The novel, in its robust early 19th century way, quite explicitly refers to Fagin as the Jew. (And Dickens modelled Fagin on a celebrated Jewish fence of the period, Ikey Solomons.) That is not to say that Dickens was anti-Semitic – in a later novel he took pains to portray a Jewish character in a favourable way.

In Polanski’s version there is no reference to Fagin as a Jew. But Kingsley’s depiction of Fagin is clearly based on the illustrations in Dickens’s novel as a humorously grotesque devil, whose end, at the gallows, is meant to be richly deserved. That’s not the way he comes across in the film. He is played much more sympathetically – as much a victim as villain. His attachment to his hidden jewellery (the fruit of his criminal trade) is as if he has little else of value in his life except what he hoards. Oliver becomes a kind of surrogate son, whom he betrays.

So the death cell scene in the film comes across very differently. In the novel Oliver’s final visit to Fagin is designed to confirm his moral superiority. In the film Oliver’s attempt to get Fagin to pray is overwhelmed by the emotional intensity of Fagin’s sense of parting from the young orphan he took in. It’s as if, to return to possible parallels with Polanski’s own childhood, Fagin stood both for the despised Jew acting to stereotype and the victim of a barbarous state system. And Oliver – who had belonged to Fagin’s world but is now ‘on the other side’ – comes across as crushed by the weight of an unbearable past despite his happiness as a ‘saved’ child in now comfortable surroundings.

This is not to say we should read the film as some kind of coded reworking of the director’s past. But maybe some of the strength of this adaptation derives from the altogether darker experience of our own times.

Oliver Twist
Director: Roman Polanski

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