OLIVER TWIST. Polanski’s Dark Take on Dickens

According to one of the Western critics, Polanski was born to make “Oliver Twist”.

Jacek Kozłowski

11 June 2024

OLIVER TWIST. Polanski's dark take on Dickens

If that were truly the case, Roman wouldn’t have become a famous director but rather a decent jack-of-all-trades in filmmaking.

He excels at blending classic literature with stylistic sophistication. However, Oliver Twist lacks a certain spark. No one will fall in love with Roman Polanski’s film, nor will it become a childhood favorite for anyone. This might be partly Dickens‘s fault, as he appears somewhat archaic here and there. After all, a novel highlighting the flaws of the nineteenth-century welfare system won’t suddenly turn into a newly discovered Harry Potter. Polanski—quite rightly—tries to replace the positivist content with a story about an individual’s struggle against the adversities of a cruel world. However, the existential porridge that results, despite many virtues, has one fundamental flaw—it is not suitable for children.

Oliver Twist

And it was supposed to be a family film! Roman Polanski dreamed of making a family movie. He chose Dickens, and it seems it was a misguided choice. The contrast between good and evil, so characteristic of the author of A Christmas Carol, becomes too stark in Oliver Twist. And since Polanski is a poor optimist, the adaptation of the nineteenth-century novel—imitating its spirit—becomes exceedingly dark. Injustice and depravity romp on the screen, and the titular hero sleeps in a basement with coffins. This gives the film some character but completely discredits it as a family movie. Something one might have expected from Polanski.

Oliver Twist Barney Clark

This does not mean, however, that the film is unsuccessful. On the contrary. After a while, Oliver Twist starts to charm indecently. However, this is fundamentally black magic. Polanski pours misfortunes out of a sleeve, masters the art of sketching shady characters, and skillfully multiplies obstacles in the hero’s path. Goodness supposedly has its place in the film, but it neither fully triumphs nor ever becomes a significant counterweight to the array of wickedness presented. And we will pity the victims of these misdeeds—Oliver, an inherently innocent child and an orphan—twice as much. Polanski exploits this simple “supporter mechanism” in his film. And surprisingly, this obvious dependency is enough to keep the viewer engaged for two hours. The aforementioned imbalance between good and evil thus becomes both the cherry on top and the nail in the coffin for Oliver Twist.

Oliver Twist Barney Clark Ben Kingsley

Speaking of support, the main character goes through a veritable ordeal during the film (a little “Passion” of sorts). He begins it in a parish orphanage and ends up in the great London. Polanski’s proven team ensured that the epithet “epic,” which should describe a picaresque novel, found its reflection on the screen. Both London and the province of a century ago have a bit of fairy-tale quality and even more of the dark depths of history.

Oliver Twist Barney Clark

However, the film wouldn’t have succeeded at all without the phenomenal Ben Kingsley. He plays Fagin, the local pawnbroker, who collects orphans from the street and leaves them with a peculiar legacy—the profession of a thief. Oliver also falls under his protective wing. And Kingsley has a crucial task in the film. Simultaneously presenting greed and love, he becomes the plane where Dickensian contrasts blend into one. Fagin’s final fear of death becomes the most moving element of Oliver Twist, and Kingsley shines on the screen, overshadowing the young star—Barney Clark. Behind him—a fact worth noting—is a plethora of extremely characteristic actors, carefully chosen by Polanski himself.

Oliver Twist Barney Clark Harry Eden

There were, of course, some mishaps. Oliver Twist is not a masterpiece and did not sweep the Oscars. Nevertheless, Polanski made a film with character. And despite attempting a film internally contradictory (as his name, Dickens’s novel, and family cinema are mutually exclusive), he emerged from the battle unscathed. And although Roman won’t be licking the icing this time, the specter of rotten tomatoes is unlikely to haunt him either. But is there really anything to be excited about here?