Every film Roman Polanski has made has set standards for the way objects are framed; from clippers and cars to doorways and rooftops, the Polish director can make anything seem a tad unwelcoming. Oliver Twist similarly set the standard for the way great narratives were written. As such, Polanski’s version of Dickens’s famous novel should have been a masterpiece—instead, it’s the director’s weakest film since 1988’s Frantic. Polanski’s mistake is taking the story at face value. Indeed, this may be one of the more faithful productions of Oliver Twist—so faithful, in fact, that Polanski and Ronald Harwood struggle to cram every juicy detail of the story into the film’s 130 minutes. Which means the film moves quickly, but too quickly to accommodate contours of character and complexity of emotion: Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) takes Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) into his home and Nancy (Leanne Rowe) later betrays Bill Sykes (Jamie Forman) in order to help Oliver return to his benefactor, but Nancy’s change-of-heart lacks nuance, as does Brownlow’s affection for the titular orphan. But even if the story is bound to its plot, Polanski understands the turbulence of Oliver’s horrible, almost deterministic experience (the actors are not the only ones who seem to go through the motions—the drawing-straws scene at the orphanage suggests that Oliver is very much a slave to fate), echoing the ups and downs in the boy’s life in the startling symmetry of the film’s compositions. Objects are shot off-center and characters travel across Polanski’s frames as if following diagonal paths—from lower left to upper right in one scene, from upper right to lower left in the next. In effect, any two given shots take on the shape of a triangle, and the entire film seems to be composed of a series of ridges. This rhythm is intoxicating, a literal approximation of Oliver’s trajectories, but this formalist rigor mirrors action, not emotion, and as such the film makes for a cold watch, but not in any sort of sinister way. Many images evoke the gaudy covers and illustrations of Penguin Classics special editions, and the attention to detail is impressive, but save for the trees that line the roads leading in and out of London—like tendrils, the branches look as it they could pluck little boys from the road—this Oliver Twist isn’t the nasty affair Polanski fans might be hoping for. It not only pales in comparison to David Lean’s lyrical 1948 production but chooses to play it safe, and anyone familiar with Dickens knows his world was anything but.
Framed along severe diagonal lines, Oliver Twist's visual precision is startling, and this transfer does remarkable justice to it. Being a mostly front-centric affair, audio isn't nearly as impressive-dialogue is clear but the surround work could have been more ambitious.
Three meaty featurettes that are good substitutes for any commentary track Roman Polanski could have recorded (and anyone might have wanted to listen to): the first focuses on the director's love of the Dickens classic, his desire to make a film for his children, and the affection between the filmmaker and his actors; the second on the film's incredible historical recreation via its sets, costumes, and cinematography; and the third engages the audience with the film's actors via the diary of its young lead, Barney Clark. Rounding out the disc is a series of theatrical trailers.
The film is a noble failure, but I can't imagine anyone coming to it now for the first time wanting to take their eyes off it given the visual splendor of this disc.