Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. United Kingdom/Czech Republic/France/Italy, 2005. R.P. Productions, Runteam II Ltd., ETIC Films. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Cinematography by Pawel Edelman. Produced by Robert Benmussa, Roman Polanski, Alain Sarde. Music by Rachel Portman. Production Design by Allan Starski. Costume Design by Anna B. Sheppard. Film Editing by Herve de Luze. Toronto International Film Festival 2005.
Roman Polanski follows his Oscar winning The Pianist with the fulfillment of a longtime dream of his, to adapt Dickens’ oft-filmed novel, reuniting with screenwriter Ronald Harwood and cinematographer Pawel Edelman. Barney Clark is terrific in the titular lead as a woefully treated boy who is raised in an orphanage and workhouse before taking to the streets of London on his own, falling into the hands of the charming Artful Dodger and the master of street thieves Fagin (with all references to his Jewishness removed, played by Ben Kingsley). A scuffle involving a stolen handkerchief puts Oliver in the way of a kindly older gentleman (Edward Hardwicke) who decides to adopt the boy as his own, but the ugliness of street life, ever impossible to shake off once it has latched itself onto a body, is never far behind. Harwood’s screenplay ably pares down the mammoth text to a manageable length and includes all the pertinent characters and situations (“MORE?”) that readers expect, while the pre-Victorian period is amply recreated and the performances are all on point…which mainly begs the question of why is everything just adequate? Viewers familiar with Polanski, the man who can make the most innocuous spaces feel oddly off-kilter, will be surprised that he made the umpteenth film version of this book without injecting a little of his own style in it somewhere. None of the characterizations veer from any BBC production you’ve had the pleasure to sit through; indeed, most of the sets actually look like a television production and don’t push the limit in how Dickens’ world is often presented (it’s not like the period-movie-upending muddy hems of Pride and Prejudice, this one’s locations actually look like they’re in a movie). To say that a film is just good should not equate it with disappointment, and Polanski doesn’t have a perfect record anyway, but the lack of special qualities really does leave a person with far more questions than anything else after watching this.