Oliver Twist (PG)<br></br> Saraband (15)

Jonathan Romney
Friday 19 July 2013 03:59

Choosing the conservative option this week is Roman Polanski in his new adaptation of Oliver Twist. In all fairness, Polanski is only 72, so Oliver Twist can be considered a late-autumn film rather than a winter one. Yet it's certainly the work of a director who's lost his once-distinctive perversity. Polanski surely entered his years as a staid academician with his last release, The Pianist. Widely expected to be a personal testament, addressing his horrific wartime experiences, it proved a strangely detached film - the work of a craftsman, perhaps, but emotionally opaque.

There's just as much command in Oliver Twist, and just as little Polanski. To be fair, it's by no means a soft film: not convivial illustrated Dickens, but for the most part a sombre panorama of grimness and grime. When Oliver (Barney Clark) arrives in London, his shoes having fallen to shreds, his feet resemble flayed meat. The film has no illusions about Victorian hygiene, nor Victorian compassion: it depicts a bitterly inhospitable world (following The Pianist, it's surely no accident that the boys' workhouse dorm has concentration camp overtones). The film is perhaps most distinctive in - somewhat cynically - identifying its rare good souls as foolish and ineffectual. Oliver's benefactor Mr Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) is a kindly duffer, but hopelessly out of his league in this sewer of a city.

Polanski's trump card is his casting, choosing from the rich pool of British character actors whose beetling brows and angular physiognomies destined them from birth to be Dickensians: among them, Liz Smith, Alun Armstrong and, resembling a fluffed-up heron, Mark Strong. Jamie Foreman is a commendably unromanticised Bill Sikes, his face like a fist clenched round a Toby jug, and Leanne Rowe's brisk Nancy is a stroppy teenage tart.

As for Fagin, today one thinks of him less as a character, more as a liability, and a shameless scene-stealing opportunity. Ben Kingsley doesn't disappoint but doesn't break the mould, either. He's the traditional Fagin, but with a few new sparky tics: fond and foolish, whining away in a Steptoe-ish voice and grinning coyly for approval. There's a strange, poignant moment when he smiles around his slum table and appeals to Nancy, "This is a pleasant life, ain't it, my dear" - and you realise he means it. Whether or not Polanski and Kingsley manage to dismantle the bogeyman-Jew stereotype is another question - it might have helped if Kingsley hadn't slipped in a couple of "oy"s towards the end, and I certainly could have done without the twee touches of klezmer in Rachel Portman's pedestrian teatime-classic score.

Mostly, however, Oliver Twist is a well-mounted evocation of Dickens's world - and more a historical slideshow than a drama. Polanski's London may be scrupulously scuzzy and mouldering, but that doesn't make it any less a tourist attraction. There's nothing here to suggest the hand of an auteur rather than just a hyper-competent professional.

Now here truly is a film in the austere late manner: Saraband, which Ingmar Bergman (b 1918) has declared will be his farewell to directing. This chamber piece par excellence is a series of scenes played out as duets, in tightly-framed, rather theatrical settings. But you sense that Bergman is operating on a level of controlled simplicity, every superfluity winnowed out, that takes a lifetime to master. And his script has a density of thought that truly makes it the summing-up, if not of his entire oeuvre, then certainly of those strands of it that deal with a) the demands and rewards of art, and b) the thorny business between men and women, parents and children.

Shot in high-definition digital video for his ever-faithful patron, Swedish Television, Saraband is a belated sequel to - more accurately, a revisiting of - 1973's Scenes From a Marriage, in which a middle-class couple systematically tore each other to emotional shreds. Years after their divorce, Marianne (Liv Ullmann) decides to visit Johan (Erland Josephson), now living in rural seclusion, and so becomes entangled with his family problems. Johan's middle-aged son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) is still mourning his late wife and trying to compensate by dominating his talented young cellist daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius).

Saraband is a drama of disturbing emotional harshness, but of masterful subtlety too, its febrile extremes always tightly reined in. It's the sort of film in which one kiss between father and daughter can have an explosive shock effect; or in which a lifetime's love and hostility can reach a quiet but intense resolution in a scene where an old couple share one last night together.

Some critics have dismissed Saraband as uncinematic, but it's absolutely not. It simply works within extremely tight limits: you're always aware of the space on which each scene is performed (a library, a church, a study) even when you can't see much of them. Bergman offsets the claustrophobic feel with a few sparing effects for emotional punctuation: a suddenly slamming door, a few inserts of surrounding countryside, a dash of expressionist lighting for Johan's climactic dark night of the soul (it's a Bergman film: there has to be a dark night of the soul). It's a sombre and commanding valedictory. Despite that patient, gentle smile that's Ullmann's trademark - and few performers can command your attention so totally when they're only smiling and listening to someone else talk - there's nothing benignly autumnal about Saraband. When Bergman says his farewells, he does it right from the heart of winter.


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