Pleaser, Sir... Less Taste, More Trauma
By Fernando F. Croce

Temptation is to be in the air for linking the young protagonist's miseries in Oliver Twist with those of Roman Polanski's own travail-crammed existence. Temptation is to be resisted -- Dickens' whipping boy (Barney Clark) weeps, yet the movie refuses the sentimentalization of pity. It's a bestial world out there, survival is all, and, indeed, the director saves the sharpest knives only to use them on himself (vide the scabrously self-policing neurotic anxiety of The Tenant). Accordingly, the camera's gaze is no less dryly distanced here than in tracing the haunted contours of Wladyslaw Szpilman's stoic journey through The Pianist's Nazi-occupied Poland; these characters might have become younger, morbidly haloed Polanski stand-ins, but the filmmaker, now past 70, has reached the point of modulated elegance and calm absurdism, if not quite of autumnal serenity. (Who wants a serene Polanski, anyway?) The credits are laid over illustrations from the Penguin editions of the book, grayish engravings of Victorian life, with colors coming in for the live-action switch -- not too much, though, since Polanski's eye, visually rhapsodic, courts dread within beauty, or maybe the other way around. Freakishness also, evident from the get-go, the 10-year-old orphan returning to the workhouse of his birth to be met by a menagerie of aged goblins, obscenely well-fed while toiling children beg for gruel.

Actually, it's Oliver who draws the shortest straw and has to ask for seconds, bowl in hand, only to get a cane to the face -- "God Is Holy" and "God Is Truth" lie imprinted above the room, but not the first or last agony in this boy's life. From there, it's on to the Sowerberrys' household, to eat from the dog's plate and sleep among caskets. Only 130 minutes to go, so characters must be sketched in with a stamp: hence, Mr. Bumble's (Jeremy Swift) monstrous rotundness, the meek-shrewish contrasts of the Sowerberrys (Michael Heath, Gillian Hannah), Magistrate Fang's (Alun Armstrong) grumbling. A week-long walking trip leaves Oliver with bloody feet, just in time for the nimble-fingered Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) to teach him how to get by in the grime of Prague-as-London, as heartfelt a studio reconstruction as Scorsese's Gangs of New York Cinecittà job. The scurvier the setting, the more vivid Polanski's staging, culminating in Ben Kingsley's appearance as Fagin, toothless, scraggly-haired and bearded, curved schnozz turned carefully less anti-Semitic than in either Dickens' novel or Alec Guinness' outrageously ethnic portrayal in David Lean's 1948 version. ("Oy, oy..." is moaned, gingerly, down the road.) The boy gets a crash-course in the larcenous choreography of pickpocketing from Fagin's urchin gang, but life, as it usually does to the typical Polanski protagonist, delivers him to safety all the better to reel him back into squalor, from the warmth of Mr. Brownlow's (Edward Hardwicke) household to the deathly chill of Bill Sykes' (Jamie Forman) hideout.

"Treat him kindly... He seems to want it," is the judge's hilariously understated verdict, which rescues Oliver from falling in the hands of an unwholesome chimney sweeper, though the feel of real danger is scarce -- if not as kitschy-winsome as Carol Reed's 1968 musical, this Oliver Twist has the horrors comfily buttressed by storybook polish, readily approved for afternoon BBC showings. Just imagine Sykes' slaughtering of Nancy (Leanne Rowe) shot by the Polanski of Repulsion to see the shortchanging of trauma here, further diluted by the main character's passiveness, shared, along with the rarified Ronald Harwood screenplay, with Szpilman from The Pianist. Still, Dickensian ordeal suits the auteur more interestingly than wringing Holocaust-drama, since the saints and the devils aren't as reductively separated and the gray areas are let out into the open. Innocence to Polanski, as to Buñuel or Lynch, exists mainly to be corrupted, then yearned for; it is the extremes of humanity, the flowering distortions of life, that fully engage his sardonic worldview, and Fagin, somewhere between Brownlow's goodness and Sykes' evil, logically usurps the stage from the virtuous, pale kid. A bent critter capable of grasping threat and tenderness, mock-authoritative amid rugrats yet tremblingly pathetic before the gallows, allowed some kind of salvation through a boy's innate sense of mercy -- Polanki's Oliver Twist hasn't really been made, though in the end his feeling for the ludicrous, the corrosive and the transcendental wipes the cobwebs off the Tasteful Adaptation cover.

*

A sunnier England for Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, sweaters, quaint greenery and cheese. All clay. The picture is, of course, the big-screen debut of Aardman Studio's claymation staples: Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis) is the bald, oblivious inventor fixated on gadgets and cheese, Gromit is the resourceful, faithful, mouthless pet dog, whose shifting brow reflects his master's many mishaps. Nick Park, who molded the duo out of putty (and co-directed the film with Steve Box), has a dry yet whimsical touch, specifically British and also aware of cinematic tradition -- the tone is fanciful Ealing comedy, though the story toils in Hammer horror, while risqué bits of business (a female character standing behind strategically placed melons, "may contain nuts" scrawled on pantaloons improvised out of a cardboard-box) are nods to the Benny Hill School of Nudging. Still, the main spirits around Were-Rabbit may belong to another British humorist, James Whale, whose rich tweaking of national tea-coziness is evoked throughout, most notably in Wallace's Bride of Frankenstein-ish "brain alteration" process, originally meant to brainwash rabbits out of their carrot-ravaging habits, instead scrambling neurons and creating the titular menace, a fuzzy behemoth pulverizing garden after garden.

First things first, though. The plot has W&G as humane pest-controllers keeping the town's green patches safe from hungry bunnies for the annual Giant Vegetable Competition, held by aristocratic, critter-friendly ditz Lady Tottington (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter); up comes the full moon, however, and off goes the Were-Rabbit on its veggie-engulfing rampages. Smug rival Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes) is on its trail, shotgun in hand, so it's up to Wallace and Gromit (or, rather, up to the ever-exasperated pub, since Wallace is too busy with his newfound bunny ears) to solve the mystery and save the day, down to the breathless final set-piece -- bits from The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, Park's earlier shorts, abound, but the results are more satisfying than Chicken Run, his previous foray into feature-length clay-whimsy. How reassuring to see both this and Corpse Bride within weeks of each other, where immaculate visual craft comes back to handmade roots, here literally: Park's budget is heftier than ever, yet CGI-lubrication is used to accentuate, rather than erase, the finger marks imprinted on the figures, the artist's fingerprints kept on the creations. A fastidious point, maybe, but a scrupulous one nowadays: The digital hipsters can keep their airbrushed "perfection," while Park insists on "angry-mob supply" stores, cotton-candy blowing in the wind like a tumbleweed, and the individualized seams that distinguish one inventor 'n' dog claymation opus from the rest.


Reviewed October 13, 2005.

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