Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist

A question of the soul.
And the injured
losing their injury
in their innocence
–a cock, a cross,
an excellence of love.

– Allen Ginsberg ‘Wild Orphan

To say that Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist does justice to the Dickens’ novel it is based on would be an overstatement. It is inconceivable that any film should. For how could one possibly capture, on celluloid, the richness and balance of Dickens’ writing? How could one possibly be loyal to his gentleness, his wit, his precision? It is a task no director is equal to.

Given that limit, however, Polanski does a really good job. Oliver Twist is as faithful to the tone and spirit of Dickens’ book as anything could be. The start of the movie is weak – Polanski is not at his best with humour, and the delicious ironies of Oliver’s early existence are treated ham-handedly – there’s a sense of predictability, of cliche. The only redeeming thing about this part of the movie is the landscapes – these are done with a painter’s loving eye, so that to watch the movie is to be transported back to the land of Gainsborough and Constable.

Where the movie really picks up is when Oliver gets to London. Polanski’s achievement, through most of the film, is to deliver scene after scene that looks exactly as you would have imagined it when you read the book, so that you experience an eerie sense of deja vu, the feeling that you’ve seen this exact picture as an illustration in some book or the other. Unlike so many film makers who base their movies on great novels, Polanski is too smart to try to control or interpret Dickens. His entire endeavour seems to be to make sure that the film doesn’t come in the way of the book, so that the experience of watching the film is brought as close to the experience of reading the book as possible.

The end result is a movie that does a wonderful job of evoking memories of Dickens’ novel. Perhaps the most compelling character here is Sykes (played by Jamie Foreman). In the movie, Sykes is a brooding, palpable menace, perhaps more so than he ever was in the book. You can literally feel the atmosphere in the room change each time he enters it. It says a lot for the power of Foreman’s performance that he (ably assisted by Leanne Rowe as Nancy) rapidly becomes the emotional centre of the film, so that it almost feels as much a movie about Sykes as it is about Oliver.

And then, of course, there’s Ben Kingsley. This is not Kingsley’s greatest performance – his acting here is a little too theatrical for my taste – but there are glimpses of sheer genius in the way he plays the part of Fagin. For me, Oliver Twist has always been more about Fagin and the Artful Dodger than about Oliver (just as The Merchant of Venice has always been more about Shylock, than about Bassanio) – so it’s saying quite a lot to say that Kingsley does not disappoint me. His performance captures beautifully the ambiguity of Fagin, his tender and reluctant villainy. Fagin is the most human of Dickens’ creations here, because unlike most of the other characters he is neither good nor evil (and therefore not the embodiment of some idea of good and evil) – he is kind when he can be, heartless when he must. Fagin is generous to the point of sacrifice, but no further – he will help as much as he can, provided his own interests are not threatened in the slightest. In that sense, Fagin is the embodiment of Pareto optimality – he is happy to make someone better off, as long as it does not involve himself being made even slightly worse off. It is this struggle between kindness and cruelty that the movie brings out superbly – we are never quite sure how we feel about Fagin – whether we trust him or hate him, whether his eventual death is tragedy or justice.

At its human heart, Oliver Twist is a novel about leaving one’s parents behind. The fact that Oliver starts as an orphan is incidental (and sweetly ironic), the story of the novel is the story of how he struggles to become one. In that sense, Fagin is the ultimate abusive parent, loving and kindhearted one minute, brutal and self-serving the next; alternating between threats of physical violence and pleas for gratitude. What Oliver (and therefore the reader) must come to terms with is the fact that gratitude is not a claim, that those who are kind to us or love us, often demand to be repaid for their love and that we must have the courage to deny them this sacrifice. That it is the nature of the world that parents must be revolted against, even destroyed, if we are ever to be more than mere replicas in their image, if we are ever to be truly ourselves. Isaac must kill Abraham, not the other way around. While the movie may seem to obscure this, the real threat to Oliver is not Sykes, it is his bond to Fagin, to the other boys. How can Oliver turn against them, when they are the only real family he has ever had? How can he denounce them to the police, and thus escape from their persecution forever? It is the seductive call of this attachment that threatens to ruin Oliver, to keep him from the opportunities that lie waiting for him so near at hand.

In the end, Oliver’s choice is a cruel, even heartless one. It needs to be so. Oliver’s rescue, his glorious new life, is achieved at the cost of two deaths, two great sacrifices. That of Nancy, who in giving up her life to save Oliver, becomes the only mother he’ll ever really have; and that of Fagin, who Oliver destroys as surely as though he had pressed a gun to his head and pulled a trigger, but who Oliver, in a gesture of characteristic meaninglessness, cannot bring himself to abandon. That last scene where Oliver goes to meet Fagin in jail the night before his execution is the classic allegory of the rebellious son trying (and failing, except perhaps in his heart) to make peace with his father. Oliver, with a callousness characteristic of youth, is unapologetic but merciful, except Fagin does not seem to accept his compassion, and Oliver leaves in a flurry of panic, unable to stay another minute with this man he truly loves. In all of literature, there are few more touching and authentic scenes between a father and his son.

In Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie wrote “children are gay and innocent and heartless”. For me, Oliver Twist is a testament to that idea. To read its ending is to experience that same sense of injustice, of bitter and faux happiness that one encounters in the last chapter of Mansfield Park. Except where Mansfield Park is a surrender, Oliver Twist is a realisation. Dickens’ great insight here is that all happy endings are also tragedies, that to rejoice in the future is to be almost cruelly indifferent to the past that we once inhabited and swore to keep faith with. Whether such indifference is necessary or a cause for sorrow depends on how young you are at heart.

But to return to the movie. There is a lot that Polanski misses here. Much of Dickens’ larger involvement with questions of class and status are absent, with the result that the movie sorely lacks the irony and wit of the novel. In many ways, Dickens’ point is that Oliver’s story is shockingly unnatural, that for every one boy who is ‘saved’ the way Oliver is, there are thousands, perhaps millions, who suffer and die without ever having an opportunity to escape their lot. Oliver is exceptional only in his luck, not in his person. This never comes out in the film. Nor does the film quite manage to capture the deep sense of belonging, of family, that Fagin and his band of pickpockets give Oliver.

In the end, then, Polanski’s Oliver Twist is not a substitute for the book – it could never have been. There is a great deal missing here, a great deal that does not come across. What Polanski has managed to do is to make a movie that is a sincere and touching exploration of the personal side of Dickens’ great novel, of the terrors of growing up, of how the world mistreats us and how its cruelty goes largely unpunished, of how, in the end, we must always betray those who have been kind to us.