Monday, October 17, 2005

Oliver Twist

Polanski's take on Oliver Twist was, as anticipated, a worthy addition to his body of work. His almost scientifically detached eye for recording the cumulative effects of an overwhelming menace on a powerless but tenacious individual lent itself perfectly to restoring the integrity to this, by now, overly familiar story. Barney Clark (who bears a striking and almost hilarious resemblance to Mia Farrow) has a few wonderful moments (especially the interval between downing a mug of hot gin and water and then completely passing right out of his chair), but he mostly walks around like a living embodiment of the Kuleshov effect, allowing, yes, of course, Polanski to edit around his beautiful little visage, but also allowing the other characters within the world of the story to project their own assumptions about the quality of his soul onto him without much intervention on his part. Oliver is repeatedly judged by his melancholy expression and the fineness of his features and often reaps unexpected benefits. This pleases us as spectators because, yes, he is a lovely little boy, and he's our protagonist, and we wish to see him succeed. But while we accept and even emotionally endorse, for example, Mr. Brownlow's confidence that the boy is pure of heart and deserves to be elevated from the squalor he lives in, what are we to do with this mode of operation when taken in conjunction with the problems of anti-Semitism that come up around Fagin? It's been widely discussed that he's often refered to in the novel (which, admittedly, I've never read) as "the Jew," and there's a wonderfully filigreed little tap dance of ambiguity here in Ben Kingsley's performance. He spends much of his time on screen teetering at the edge of the precipice of stereotype, never quite tumbling off, but inviting us, daring us, to blow him over with our own baggage and preconceived notions. Which is why the final scene where Oliver voluntarily goes to visit Fagin in his prison cell to pray with him, and for him, and forgive him is so, so crucial. Even more important than providing a satisfactory resolution for the narrative, this moment gives us, as an audience, a final opportunity, an unflinching challenge, a hurled gauntlet, to transmute our easy, natural sympathy for a charming little boy who will finally have a chance to live surrounded by love and comfort into a genuine, hard-won sense of compassion for a horrifying, mad old man who probably has never known and, except for this gesture, will never know again before his execution, much kindness in the world save for what he stole, grasping and greedy. Behold the power of cinema, ladies and germs. Using editing and image to comment on the art itself and to jar our perceptions just enough to lead us, changed, out of the theater at the end of the night, our sense of social justice provoked.

(A cross-country happy birthday shout-out to Giddy and her twin today.)

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