Charles Dickens’ continuing relevance is less a testament to his genius than to the endurance and recurrence of the problems he took as his focus. Poverty, classism, oppression — such daily struggles against overwhelming odds put in place by the State remain as crucial and charged today as in the 19th century. Even so, Roman Polanski’s move from the Oscar-winning Pianist to the seeming children’s story Oliver Twist looks at first to be abrupt. In particular, there’s the question of the Jewish leads in each film: where Adrien Brody’s Szpilman ranks among the most visibly abused and beleaguered Jewish characters in recent memory, Fagin remains notoriously difficult, more than once imagined through blatantly anti-Semitic filters, with hook nose and bent body to reflect his depraved and ugly soul.
And yet, Polanski’s Oliver Twist is of a piece with his previous film in almost uncanny ways, demonstrating that such easy oppositions — between ,say, Jews and Gentiles, are inadequate for understanding human distress and survival. Primarily, the movies are alike in their depiction of utterly passive protagonists: the caved-in Szpilman and the painfully pale, big-eyed Oliver (Barney Clark) both get on because they are unable to act. And as they are surrounded by abuse and horror, these traumatized individuals become emblems of the director’s thematic obsessions: human cruelty, alienation and dislocation, and above all, identity fragmentation.
That’s not to say that the 130-minute Oliver Twist is so affecting as its precursor. A depressingly literal reading of the novel, it opens on the boy in the workhouse, at once too frail and too innocent to grasp the corruption of his assessors — a table full of jowly men in vests who proclaim him trouble when he asks for “more” on the food line. Shipped off to a household where he’s abused mercilessly, Oliver escapes to London, where he’s adopted first by the dreadful Fagin (Ben Kingsley) for his squad of pickpockets and prostitutes (including the initially fearful, eventually courageous Nancy [Leanne Rowe]), and then by kindly bookseller Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke).
The coincidence of the encounter with Brownlow is the sort Dickens used repeatedly: Oliver, out for a training session with the expert pickpocket, the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), can’t quite manage his escape when things go wrong. As Dodger and another boy scamper to safety, Oliver is caught up and hauled to the police station, where the victim of the theft — Brownlow — testifies to the boy’s innocence. When Oliver, barely able to speak and unable to identify himself, faints dead away, Brownlow does the good thing, taking him home and nursing him back to something approximating health. Learning of the child’s homeless state, the good man dresses him up in proper clothes and sets him to tasks around the house so he might earn his keep and even an education.
Oliver’s fate is hardly so simple, of course, as to be rescued once and be done with it. And so the tale persists, as Fagin’s domineering partner in crime Bill Sykes (Jamie Forman) gets wind of the boy’s disappearance into decency, and decides to hunt him down. Thus is Oliver perpetually buffeted by the forces who mean to use him for their own ends, whether nefarious or benevolent. That Oliver is so relentlessly caught up, carried, imprisoned, and beaten down, makes him an effective, if conventional, sign of ongoing and terrible class-based oppression. It also makes him a curious protagonist, not quite chameleonic, as he retains his gullible sweetness throughout, but certainly malleable and abject.
This characteristic is clearest in the boy’s relationship with Fagin, on whom he takes pity when Oliver recognizes in his captor and abuser a fellow victim. Oliver is only saved from a similar descent into wickedness and madness, the film suggests, because he’s rescued as a child. If left to the streets as Fagin has been all his life (or so we presume), the boy might also have succumbed, despite his apparently innate generosity, moral righteousness, and thoughtfulness. This emotional connection grants Fagin — alarmingly lost in himself by film’s end, collapsed in shadow and utterly alone in a prison cell — Oliver Twist‘s most visible trajectory. His change, however, is less traditionally “heroic” than it is a submission to his own awfulness. His breakdown follows from self-recognition. It’s punishment, not triumph.