FADE IN: to the fairy tale familiarity of Dickens, the soothing open spaces, the sparse script. Slow shift to London, dialogue becomes denser with the claustrophobia of the city – but it’s too late, our defenses are already down – before we’re even aware of the prick of the needle Polanski has shot the poison beneath our skin. "Oliver Twist" is surely the most disturbing movie of the year, eschewing histrionic Hollywood violence for bloodspots on the wall, the sickening smush of a head being bashed in. To borrow from the Cronenberg competition, “History of Violence” indeed!
Polanski’s latest artwork is riveting, his actors infusing Dickens’ colorful characters with richness, never resorting to a hint of cliché. Jamie Foreman’s Bill Sykes and Leanne Rowe’s Nancy are in a movie of their own. (Foreman as Sykes is walking violence, a younger Ray Winstone.) Polanski continues to be a master director who never forgot his acting roots, with a respect for the craft that’s not condescending. Polanski lets the actors live and breathe inside their characters without smothering them to death with fancy camera angles and fake words.
As in "Repulsion", another movie of innocence lost, Polanski conjures up an atmosphere of violence – the threat of destruction looming large over everything from script to set design. This is what marks him a master (mediocre filmmakers eschew all-consuming atmosphere for easy bloodletting) and renders the MPAA ratings system a joke. If any film deserves an R it’s this one! What Polanski doesn’t show, his inference, is more horrific than what he chooses to put onscreen. Children, though, have vivid imaginations, desensitized to videogame violence, so when they see the ten-year-old Oliver Twist, their peer, enduring his brutal life, their identification with the hero is total and complete.
Polanski, of course, would disagree. I don’t know whether to be more disturbed by his claim he’s finally gotten rave reviews from his kids – or by pondering which of Papa Roman’s films they’re comparing it to. (I guess the beating of a ten-year-old sure beats seeing daddy in drag in "The Tenant".) Perhaps it’s his European sensibility, a childhood lost to the Holocaust, but here in America, Peter Pan is still considered sacred ground. In choosing this material Polanski is tackling one of the few taboos left in film – violence against children, innocence itself. (Lars Von Trier must be jealous – two hours of nonstop brutality directed at a ten-year-old!) We’re used to seeing mobsters getting whacked Tarantino-style. We’re indifferent. However, we still can be shocked by mob violence aimed at an angelic little boy.
FADE OUT: Polanski has tread on the sanctity of youth. Murphy’s Law is not supposed to apply to kids.