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Issue Date:  October 21, 2005

Lyrical stories of poverty

Dickens' 'Oliver Twist' is brought to the screen; 'The Weeping Meadow' chronicles a painful time in Greek history


Oliver Twist is early Dickens. Comic exaggerations are often too wordy in these works, yet they retain emotional power as a strong attack on society’s widespread indifference to poverty. Charles Dickens knew about injustice to the poor from his own experience, and director Roman Polanski, whose recent “The Pianist” brought him deserved high praise, was probably attracted to the book by memories of his own painful childhood in Poland during World War II.

Dickens has always been tempting to filmmakers. David Lean made a fine black-and-white “Oliver Twist” in 1948. But the comic language of the novels easily evaporates onscreen and many directors would prefer to avoid his scenes of extreme pathos. Dickens, however, is clear about his purpose: “I wished to show, in little Oliver, the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last.” In 11-year-old Barney Clark, Mr. Polanski found a boy who is both convincingly innocent and plucky, neither hardened nor made cynical by injustice and ill treatment.

Ronald Harwood’s screenplay intelligently cuts away much narrative fat, eliminating the coincidences that finally assign a respectable parentage to Oliver but leaving a large role to Fagin (Ben Kingsley) and his gang of young pickpockets, led by the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden). Indeed, the gang is always so high-spirited that some young spectators might be tempted to join them, and even Fagin, though given a false nose and greedy fingers, is seen at the end as intending a kindness to Oliver. Despite Fagin’s caricatured features, the epithet “Jew” -- repeatedly employed in the novel, reflecting the anti-Semitism of the time -- is never employed.

Mr. Polanski is especially successful in suggesting the crowded and dangerous streets of London (though the photography of Pawel Edelman was done in Prague). He captures the spirit of Dickensian caricature, revealing the wonderfully hypocritical faces of Oliver’s tormentors in scene after scene. Particularly memorable is the dinner at which the parish board gorges on beef Wellington and fine wine while predicting Oliver’s end on the gallows for daring to request a second bowl of gruel. Photography, lighting and casting combine to underline the contrast.

Mr. Polanski makes good use of Barney Clark’s delicate features as Oliver and elicits a moving performance from Leanne Rowe as Nancy, as well as a frightening one from Jamie Foreman as Bill Sykes. Mr. Kingsley conveys a nuanced exhibitionism as Fagin, and Edward Hardwicke makes Mr. Brownlow a benevolent protector of the long-suffering young hero. Children will be drawn to this story of an orphan boy victimized by fate, but the very young should be spared the brutal murder of Nancy by the villainous Sykes.

The director remains faithful to the author’s intent to produce a document of social protest while retaining the essential warm-heartedness of the original. Although I suspect Dickens himself would find the scenes of terror too mild and the comedy too restrained, the result is a well-crafted movie that should both entertain and prod everyone in the family to think about poverty.

The Weeping Meadow will not get wide distribution in the United States, but its opening should encourage serious movie lovers to check out earlier videos and DVDs (“The Travelling Players,” “Landscape in the Mist”) of its great Greek director, Theo Angelopoulos. His films can be considered meditations on the tragic 20th-century history of his country; “The Weeping Meadow” opens with refugees from Odessa to Thessalonika in 1919 walking toward the camera from the edge of the sea and continues with a succession of human disasters through the end of World War II.

Those who know no more Greek history than I do will be pleased to realize that they do not need to decipher all its nuances. Violent events are mostly left unseen, as in Greek tragedy, though an atmosphere of gravity and grief is dominant. Eleni (Alexandra Aidini), the little orphan girl seen in the first shot, quickly becomes a distraught young woman forced to surrender twin illegitimate children and pressured to marry her elderly stepfather (Vassilis Kolovos). When she runs away from her wedding, eloping with Alexis (Nikos Poursanidis), a young man who loves her, their struggle for survival, recovery of the twins and eventual separation form the movie’s central thread.

But such a summary is misleading since the camera recording this intimate tale of travail tracks sequences that reveal a broader society: Villagers go on with their tasks as we walk through their midst, steam engines run along next to the water, and a nine-minute scene at a beer hall dance climaxes with the death of the old stepfather. The leader of a village orchestra befriends the couple because he recognizes Alexis’ extraordinary skill with an accordion, and authentic Greek music binds the film together, softening its sometimes apocalyptic tone.

Mr. Angelopoulos is solemn, but his embrace of the life around him is ultimately exhilarating. Though characters cry out in deep pain, even the stepfather is shown respect at the end. A home seen early in the movie appears again, this time with a nearby tree trimmed with the carcasses of lynched sheep. The ups and downs of the village orchestra reflect the hardship of the times; floods of melody cannot hide the fact that the taverns are deserted.

Alexis’ musical talent brings him to the attention of a famous composer who encourages him to join his orchestra in America. He leaves his wife and children reluctantly, but we never see him again. Fragments from a letter indicate he joined the U.S. army because it seemed the only way of bringing Eleni over to join him.

Some will dismiss this almost three-hour movie as depressing, especially when they realize it is the first of a trilogy. But Mr. Angelopoulos is doing something more than recording fascist and communist excesses in Greece. His film shows the struggle of ordinary men and women to survive, and it gives them the respect they deserve. His poetic style may not attract tourists to his country, but it celebrates the pain and beauty of its people.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular film reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005

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