Loading...
 

Petite crime

Polanski offers harrowing social critique in Oliver Twist

Lately, the weight of the world seems to rest on the shoulders of children.

??
Actor Freddie Highmore set the standard for the current cinematic crop of grave, world-weary children with his chin-up despair over parental death in Finding Neverland, while Annasophia Robb weathered parental desertion in Because of Winn-Dixie.

??
On the face of it, Charles Dickens' little-boy-lost fable Oliver Twist seems a strange choice of subject for Roman Polanski, not a man with a reputation for protective instincts when it comes to the young.

??
In truth, Polanski's films have always exhibited a soft spot for the persecuted, the poor and the vulnerable. From Repulsion to Rosemary's Baby to his adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel for Tess, Polanski's films treat a world where the desire for power and control creates unimaginable cruelty for his protagonists, who tend to be outsiders preyed upon by the powerful.

??
It is impossible not to think about Polanski's personal history when watching his adaptation of Dickens' Oliver Twist, a vivid reminder that throughout history and even today, children are often at the absolute bottom of society's pecking order.

??
As a Jewish child in Poland, Polanski watched the potential for human evil firsthand: His mother died in Auschwitz and he spent the war alternately sheltered and exploited by the adults hiding him from the Nazis. His Oliver is similarly shown, at a young age, how radically the world can divide into kind and cruel.

??
When the film opens, the newly orphaned Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) enters a workhouse governed by jowly, sadistic bureaucrats. The institution's mess hall walls are decorated with religious bromides like "God Is Love," which echo the "Work Will Set You Free" promise hung outside of Auschwitz's gates. Put to work in the 19th-century version of a Nike sweatshop, Oliver's treatment as powerless slave labor has undeniable 21st-century resonance.

??
When he flees the brutal English countryside for London, Oliver finds a shady father figure in Fagin (Ben Kingsley), the hunched, insect-like ring leader to a gang of boy pickpockets. Whisky, card games and a got-your-back brotherhood initially make the warm hive of underage criminality seem like paradise. After Oliver's brutal run-ins with adults, robbery feels like an appropriate comeuppance.

??
Oliver learns the art of pickpocketing from the sly, charismatic Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), a dandy in frock coat and rebel swagger. Dickens' novel showed how poverty begets crime, but Polanski has the anarchical tendencies of a subversive who finds the children's crimes a liberating thumbed nose at a morally corrupt and hypocritical society.

??
In the midst of one heist, Oliver is arrested and winds up in the benevolent arms of a rich man who takes pity on the sickly, melancholy boy, and the slate grays of the workhouse give way to the caramel browns of this plummy, welcoming world.

??
But when Fagin and his black-eyed henchman Bill Sykes (wonderfully played with a horrifyingly robotic detachment and some amount of sympathy by Jamie Foreman) try to drag Oliver back into a life of crime, Oliver Twist loses some of its social consciousness and settles into familiar rhythms in its lackluster middle passage of a boy's adventure story, albeit an extremely bloody, violent and scary one. It is not until the film's end and Oliver's pathos-filled reunion with Fagin that Polanski returns to the depth and power of the film's opening.

??
Polanski's Oliver Twist is a flawed but harrowing, empathetic view of the world seen through the eyes of its most powerless and invisible citizens. Oliver Twist's salvation comes at a great cost, and even the victory of escape comes with an attendant sadness for all those left behind.



More By This Writer

Article

Tuesday June 27, 2017 08:52 pm EDT
Sofia Coppola imagines female desire in 'The Beguiled' | more...

Article

Friday April 27, 2012 03:00 pm EDT
Local painter loses her innocence in a dark, abstract solo show | more...

Article

Monday April 23, 2012 05:00 pm EDT
Chastain Arts Center's new exhibit is quiet and contemplative | more...

Article

Friday April 13, 2012 04:00 am EDT
Duo's Beep Beep Gallery collaboration is the best kind of cultural time capsule | more...

Article

Friday March 30, 2012 10:30 am EDT
Solo exhibit transforms Get This! Gallery into dive bar | more...
Search for more by Felicia Feaster

[Admin link: Petite crime]