The surprising thing is that Polanski pulls his punches most in the beginning, rather than softening the blows at the end, which he lets land without relief. The first nine years of Oliver's life are skipped over (including his parentage and the conspiracy to keep him from discovering it). We are introduced to Oliver (Barney Clark) as if he were simply one of hundreds at the workhouse for the poor plucked out to be the symbol for his kind. We are left to guess at why; perhaps Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood wanted a more universal representative of the poor, a true audience surrogate as our guide through the penury, depredation and villainy that was England (and Europe) at the time. Whatever the case, we are rushed headlong into the now-famous scene in which Oliver is elected by his fellows to ask for "more." The gnawing, obscene hunger that so permeates the novel is first introduced, inexplicably, in what appears to be a comedy routine. Later, when Oliver is sent away to work for a mortician, a truer indication is given of what it meant, in Dickens' knowing phrase, to be "left to the tender mercies" of others.
The scene is all the more gasp-worthy after more than a century and a half: Oliver devouring his first meal at the Sowerberrys, a tin of meat scraps from the dog's bowl. Yet in the same breath, Polanski has these Sowerberrys wheezing and jerking like broad caricatures, annihilating the sense of mortality with the introduction of a 19th-century equivalent of a Queen Latifa act. It is one of many instances when Dickens' satire is mistakenly construed as comic relief. Based on Polanski's record for comedy (… la 1986's "Pirates"), it's likely not a misreading of the material but a mishandling of it.
The movie is much better whenever Oliver is at his worst. After he escapes from the Sowerberrys and proceeds to London, he is further starved, tricked, beaten, shot, kidnapped and threatened with murder. But before that Polanski drags him along the 70 miles between his foster home and the great city, trailing the camera along his feet as they sour into raw clumps of cuts and sores.
Clearly Polanski has an eye for individual misery and hardship. It's surprising, though, to find the Oscar-winning director of "The Pianist" flailing so often with the larger picture. His bustling London slums and their extras are staged too obviously to be convincing, the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) and his pals seem to have been inspired by the Bowery Boys, and the main bad guy, Fagin (Ben Kingsley), is all intense acting to no apparent purpose. In fact, out of all the wonderful characters in Dickens' second novel, only a handful in this new reading resemble real people with real motivations. The good news is that most are the key people necessary for the movie's last act, including Nancy (Leanne Rowe), who tries to save Oliver and Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman), who murders her for it in the novel and film's most memorable scene outside the orphanage.
If you can hold off judgment until these final sequences, it is worth the wait. Polanski, after politely stepping around his subject, finally goes for the throat. Amid fearful nights and hangings, the Warsaw ghetto survivor and "Macbeth" director clicks with the material. This, the mobs and the murders and the macabre realism of it all, is all we ask for more of. (PG-13) 130 min. *** S
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