Polanski's adaptation of Dickens's classic portrays a startling yet unsentimental vision of Victorian London. Jerome Monahan sets the scene and highlights the teaching opportunities
The press notes suggest that director Roman Polanski opted for Oliver Twist as his latest project in an effort to put some distance between himself and his last movie The Pianist - a film inspired by his own experiences during the Nazi occupation of his native Poland. Certainly, this - the third cinematic outing for Charles Dickens's 1837 novel - is far removed from the recreated horrors of the Warsaw ghetto. But it is hard not to feel Oliver Twist's plight, abandoned and alone in a harsh urban setting, is one that must have resonated strongly with a filmmaker whose early wartime childhood was similarly precarious.
What Polanski delivers in this compelling and meticulously realised adaptation is an unsentimental depiction of the dangers and misery that threaten to engulf Oliver. The recreation of early Victorian London is startling. The drawings of Gustav Dore were a particular influence on Allan Starski's production designs, particularly his recreation of the city's thoroughfares and hellish slum alleys and courts.
The tracking shots that capture Oliver's point of view as he first witnesses the seething, gin-fuelled debauchery of the backstreets while being led to Fagin by the Artful Dodger is a bravura piece of filmmaking.
It is the cinematic equivalent of the penetration into the unseemly and criminal that Dickens achieves in the novel and which ruffled respectable readers' sensibilities at the time. So horrendous is life on Polanski's Victorian streets that Fagin's finishing school for thieves is a positive relief, a place of seeming calm and play - a paradox given that it is also the site of Oliver's potential corruption and destruction.
In the novel much of the pickpockets' realm derives its allure from the Dodger's humorous exchanges with Charlie Bates. In the film its conviviality is down to Sir Ben Kingsley's subtle interpretation of Fagin - grotesque, but still many notches down from the kind of pantomime devil Dickens created. In one powerful moment, when tending Oliver's injuries following a botched burglary, Ronald Harwood's screenplay allows Kingsley a chance to hint at rich but half-forgotten cultural undercurrents informing the character - the source of the folk medicine he is employing.
"The treatment of Fagin will be one of the most interesting elements of the film," suggests Dr Adam Roberts, professor of 19th century literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. "Dickens faced accusations from his Jewish friends that he had created an unhelpful anti-semitic stereotype in Fagin, causing him to tone down his descriptions of the character in later editions of the novel. Fagin still remains as problematic a figure in our culture as Shylock."
This term pupils will have access to Dr Roberts who will be in role as Charles Dickens answering emailed questions via an online Film Education Oliver Twist e-learning site. "It's a first for us," explains the charity's director Ian Wall. "It will be a living resource to which we will be adding new material and also posting the most interesting Q and As."
For Dr Roberts this will be his second outing as an emailable Dickens for Film Education. "I helped out at the time a cartoon version of A Christmas Carol was in cinemas. It worked well, generating lots of good questions and a few quirky ones, including one wanting to know my (Dickens's) favourite type of cheese." Publicity for the Film Education e-learning site is due in schools in the shape of a fold-out print set of "teaser" activities inviting students to consider aspects of Oliver's sympathetic characterisation in the film - including his extreme fastidiousness concerning personal hygiene; and a journalistic exercise asking students to create a Victorian newspaper report of Fagin's execution.
The background materials budding reporters will need, including Dickens's own account of a visit to Newgate in one of his Sketches by Boz, will be among the main website's cache of materials. Alongside them are copious notes on many aspects of early Victorian society and practical film-related activities exploring the writing of the movie's screenplay, its mise en sc ne and the marketing campaign behind its launch.
One of the great pleasures of the film is Ronald Harwood's script. It is enjoyably demanding, matching the novel in its use of the colourful thieves' slang, and the Film Education site provides opportunities for pupils to work with this language and also reflect on their own vocabularies' origins.
Another task invites students to consider the balance of realistic and fantasy elements within the film. Key to its powerful impact is its disregard for the fantastic back story conspiracies surrounding Oliver's origins. And without rubbing our noses in horrors there is plenty to suggest the early corruption of innocence in the shape of Nancy's youth and the pickpockets' mechanical and passionless performance of their craft even when play acting it for Oliver's benefit. And the depiction of Nancy's death is all the more terrible for just suggesting the consequences of Bill Sykes' blows.
* Oliver Twist (PG) opens on October 7.
Additional copies of the Oliver Twist mail-out activity sheet are available from Film Education, 21-22 Poland Street, London W1F 8QQ
Tel: 020 7851 9450
* Film Education e-learning Oliver Site www.filmeducation.orgolivertwist
* Official film site www.sonypictures.commoviesolivertwist
* Gustav Dore's images of London www.cf.ac.ukencapskiltonillustrindex.html
Free screenings: see today's Friday magazine for details of free screenings for teachers at cinemas around the country this Sunday