‘Competent’ is a disappointing adjective. Perhaps it is the worst adjective one can label a film. At least the taste of a bad movie has the indecency to stick around, like the hungover morning aftertaste of a poorly-chosen kebab. Competent movies fade in the memory until they are little more than another two hours whilst away in a lifetime. More than that, competent movies are not what you expect from Roman Polanski, the same man who made such brilliant films as Repulsion, Chinatown, and The Tenant. Even today he is still occasionally capable of making some really good films in which he is perfectly happy to take risks, of which Carnage and Venus in Furs are prime examples: both small, tightly-wrapped films which use excellent performances affixed to subtle but lyrical camerawork to great effect.
In contrast to those two works, Oliver Twist is about as competent as its possible to get. It has plenty of solid performances by an experienced cast of British character actors such as Ben Kingsley, Jamie Foreman, and Mark Strong, all of whom are on form and always a pleasure to watch. There are good production values too, with Victorian London being convincingly recreated by a suitable array of detailed costumes and sets. The source material is of course, a classic, and provides a strong foundation from the start that is difficult to truly screw up.
And yet, I found it difficult to care about any of this. Polanski’s Oliver Twist is unimaginative and mediocre throughout. Compare it to David Lean’s definitive 1948 version, and the differences are stark. Lean’s film is full of gorgeously expressionistic camerawork that brilliantly reflects the narrative demands of the material; Polanski stages things simply and unimaginatively, with far too many mid-shots and relatively basic framing. Where Polanski sets up a scene and has his actors act within it, Lean would have added some moody lighting or a subtle camera track to spice things up. The aforementioned production design, solid as it is, is a little too ‘BBC’ and clean; it lacks the grime and shabbiness that gives the earlier work such a lived-in quality. To add to this, shots featuring the skies are blandly colour-corrected, and backdrops of London are CGI’d in unconvincingly. It all reminds us that we are watching a filmic adaptation of a novel, rather than a living breathing work of its own
The same problem occurs in the cast. As strong as the performances are here, Lean’s film features the better turns. Ben Kingsley is an excellent actor, but his Fagin isn’t a spot on Alec Guinness’, though then again, few actors are even within spitting distance of the great man. Polanski hits many of the same beats as Lean did all those years ago, yet takes longer to wrap up his film whilst adding nothing to the story that Lean didn’t already do better. It’s surprising really, especially considering that Polanski has long been one of the most stylish directors of his generation. It’s almost as if he purposely stripped back his style here so as to avoid aping David Lean’s classic, but in fact all he does is reveal how strong that version was and still is.
Oliver Twist is not an outright failure, and there are bigger duds in Polanski’s filmography. The depiction of Fagin here is arguably the film’s strongest angle. Ben Kingsley depicts him as an old con man but one with a significant degree of empathy and care for the boys who live under him. He’s not an anti-Semitic caricature as he has been at times in the past (well, the director is Jewish, so what do you expect?). This slight shift in the presentation of such an iconic character does provide Oliver Twist with some small voice of its own, but this is quietly hidden amongst the never-ending competency that never rises above such a meek level. To watch this blind, you’d never think it was by the same man who directed Rosemary’s Baby.