I don’t know where to draw the line between cinematographer and director. The stark and desperate beauty of nineteenth-century London is as much a character as Fagin in this most recent and best-yet retelling of the Dickens masterpiece. The muddy streets, dirty air and meandering mobs are nearly as threatening as the broken government in Dickens indictment of a corrupt and socially bankrupt empire midway through its long inward collapse. Nothing and no one is clean in Dickens’ dark vision given new life by cinematographer Pawel Edelman and director Roman Polanski.
Precipitous divides between the classes give little hope for a shared and better future. We see the upper class in their decadence and insensitivity as backroom board members all too eager to seal young Oliver’s fate and we also see them as kind benefactor coming to Oliver’s rescue. The former are many, the latter but one. Oliver’s appeal for “more” upsets the delicate balance by which the subjugated abide their fate. Threatened with lynching and booted from the poor house, Oliver is taken in by Fagin and his troupe of petty criminals.
Ben Kingsley imbues the archetypical Fagin with a complexity of character that elevates him beyond the trademark sneer and into a fully developed and nearly impenetrable mask of conflict and compassion. It is in Fagin that Dickens’ story becomes other than a simple morality tale.
Dickens’ pedantic indictment of his culture becomes a more shaded and subtle exploration of good and evil through Fagin. He morphs from victimizer to victim and villain to hero, and back again. Twist as representative of our innocence is an easier character to track.
Dickens’ story is a rich and rewarding one for all its ugly truth of a decadent England. Polanski and Edelman bring it to thrilling and awesome life while clearly marking its themes of class struggle and injustice. The clothing and speech may have changed but the story is sadly timeless.