Roman Polanski: The artful dodger

A benign adaptation of 'Oliver Twist' may be a surprising offering from the director of the horror classic 'Rosemary's Baby'. But the story of a fugitive child at the mercy of strangers isn't so far from that of a man whose life has, from his earliest years, been haunted by death and violence
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The Independent Online

Much of Polanski's life invokes sympathy, even pity. Yet his reactions are so defiantly unsentimental that he can appear callous. Horror has pursued him throughout his life like a hound from hell - a horror that he has exorcised to some degree through his movies.

The most surprising thing about his latest movie, Oliver Twist, is its lack of terror. So benign is it that the film's alternative title might have been "The Kindness of Strangers" as the central thrust of the drama is the competition between Mr Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) and Fagin (Sir Ben Kingsley) for Oliver's affections. The result is a soft-centred version of Dickens which may come as a surprise to those who view Polanski as one of cinema's dark alchemists.

I remember sitting in Charles Marowitz's Open Space Theatre some time in the early 1970s watching a rare production of Picasso's play Four Little Girls. The fact that all four young (though not underage) actresses performed the entire play naked is neither here nor there.

Fifteen minutes after the play began there was a kerfuffle at the door and a diminutive man in a camel coat with a fur collar swept into the tiny theatre with three blonde girls in tow and manoeuvred himself into an already packed front row. Twenty minutes later, having had his fill of Picasso's singular attempt at drama, he got up and swept out again with his glamorous entourage.

It was my first sighting of Roman Polanski and it left an indelible and not altogether favourable impression. In plain English, I thought he was an arrogant prick.

When I later recounted the incident to Polanski himself during an interview conducted over lunch at his local restaurant in Paris, he said: "Yes. I remember. It wasn't very good, was it? And life is too short."

Long before Quentin Tarantino made the director more famous than the stars who appeared in his movies, Roman Polanski had established himself in the minds of the discerning public as a force of nature, a vile degenerate or a master film-maker, depending on your point of view. Few directors have had their lives so ransacked by fate and lived to tell the tale through cinema. He is Hollywood's worst nightmare, an auteur with an Oscar. And he is a fugitive from American justice.

When Polanski finally received the Best Director Oscar in 2003 for The Pianist after several nominations in the category, there was no small irony in the fact that his friend Harrison Ford had to receive it on his behalf and present it to him five months later in Paris. Had Polanski elected to attend the Academy Awards, his Oscar might have cost him 50 years in prison.

Yet it was seen as another step on the long road to rehabilitation for a man whose private life has impinged on his professional career to an almost catastrophic degree. Themes of alienation, bizarre collisions of characters and social and sexual disenfranchisement pepper his films from his debut, Knife in the Water, onwards. Yet however dark and psychologically tormented Polanski's films appear to be, they pale in comparison with events in his own life.

Born in 1933 in Paris, the three-year-old Polanski moved back to Poland with his parents. His father was a Polish Jew and his mother a Russian Catholic and their timing could not have been worse. They were herded into the Krakow ghetto with the arrival of the Nazis. Just before his parents were shipped off to concentration camps, Polanski escaped from the ghetto at the age of nine, and fled into the countryside where he survived through his own resourcefulness and the kindness of strangers. His mother died in Auschwitz and his father survived to be reunited with his son.

After a false start in technical school, the teenage Polanski won a place at the distinguished Lodz Film School where his short films immediately singled him out as a future talent. In the intervening period he narrowly escaped death at the hands of a man who had already murdered three people. It was clear that Polanski, whatever blows life was to deal him, was genetically programmed to survive.

The same was not always true of his loved ones. In 1969 his second wife, Sharon Tate, was slaughtered, along with four friends, by Charles Manson and his followers. The horror was compounded by the fact that Tate was eight months pregnant with their first child. His greatest regret, Polanski has said, was not being at home on Cielo Drive, Beverly Hills, the night of the murders. In an effort to overcome the tragedy he made Macbeth less than a year afterwards.

Even here, he could not escape public scrutiny and seemed to defy sympathy. When his production designer complained that he was using too much blood on the set, Polanski replied: "I know violence. You should've seen my house last summer."

Then, at the height of his success in Hollywood, with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown having established him as a world-class director who could make serious films that made money, he was charged with statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, Samantha Gailey. He fled to France while on bail to escape sentencing and has remained there ever since.

Having supped full of horrors in his life and leaked them into his movies, it is clear that, following The Pianist, which traded off his memories of the Krakow ghetto directly for the first time, he wanted to do something more benign. He has said that his latest film, Oliver Twist, was made for his children, Morgane (12) and Elvis (seven) from his third-time-lucky marriage to Emmanuelle Seigner, who has appeared in several of his movies.

Clearly, a happy marriage and children have had a stabilising effect on Polanski. "A lot has changed for me," he said recently. "My life has improved. It's not only children, but the relationship with my wife is the best thing that ever happened to me."

While it is tempting to speculate that this is another step in Polanski's slow path to respectability in the eyes of the US, I now suspect Oliver Twist is a memorial to his wartime childhood in Poland. As Vanity Fair found out to its cost in a recent libel case, Polanski has a long and supernaturally accurate memory.

And the truth is that Polanski has little desire to return to America. He considers himself European and in fact has only ever made two movies in the US, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. While he may not be able to come to Britain, which is probably more painful to him as he has many friends here, he is in his spiritual and cultural home. What has Hollywood to offer him now? "Chinatown II"? "The Revenge of Rosemary's Baby"?

With its theme of kindness and humanity, Oliver Twist can be read as a companion piece to The Pianist. It represents the good side of his childhood when he was taken in by families as he wandered through the Polish countryside. Sixty years after the event, Oliver Twist is his thank-you note to them.