The story is the same. Poor little orphaned Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) has had a hard life. Either toiling in a horrible workhouse or being beaten at a miserable foster home it's hasn't been easy for the 9-year-old. The boy finally runs away to London where he is immediately spotted by the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) a wily pickpocket. He whisks the sickly Oliver off to meet Fagin (Ben Kingsley) the leader of the pickpocket gang. Under the watchful guidance of Fagin and the other boys Oliver is taught the fine art of lifting. But when he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time and is falsely accused for a theft Oliver is inadvertently taken under the wing of the kindly Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) a rich man who adopts the boy. Finally some happiness right? Not if you're in a Dickens novel. No sooner is Oliver contentedly ensconced with Brownlow when tragedy strikes again. Fagin's business partner the utterly cruel Bill Sykes (Jamie Forman) kidnaps Oliver and forces him to help them rob Brownlow's house. And when that doesn't go so well Bill then wants to get rid of Oliver. Only with the help of Bill's mistress Nancy (Leanne Rowe) who feels sympathy for Oliver can the boy be reunited with the only person who has ever showed him any kindness.
In a film full of fine performances from relatively unknown British actors Ben Kingsley stands out--and rightly so. Finally Kingsley has been given a part worthy of his talent and the Oscar-winning actor plays one of literature's more memorable characters to the hilt. Part Shakespeare's Falstaff part Lord of the Rings' Gollum Kingsley enjoys playing up Fagin's sprightly nature and physicality. Fagin is a merry prankster even if he's all hunched over and craggy faced with a high squeaky voice and a long moldy beard. But Fagin suffers. He doesn't really want to corrupt young Oliver. He knows the boy is pure of heart but he's too afraid of getting caught--or of evoking Bill's wrath--to let Oliver go. Kingsley subtly shows this internal struggle of good and evil raging within Fagin. As far as the rest of the cast it's interesting to note how all the children are fresh-faced and wide-eyed especially Clark as the oh-so-fragile yet surprising resilient Oliver and Eden as the crafty but goodhearted Dodger. All the adults especially the mean-spirited ones are either very severe and haggard or doughy and sweaty. In fact the film is a great study in faces a testament to Polanski's keen eye for the human condition.
Roman Polanski may have made some bad choices in his personal life but the man sure knows how to make a movie. With Oliver Twist the Oscar-winning director returns to the 19th century England he so vividly painted in his 1979 Tess--except this time around it's a bleak existence in the mud-caked streets of Victorian London being used as a backdrop instead of the lush English countryside. Polanski and his team painstakingly recreate the newly industrialized London from the ground up. It's a bustling teeming frightfully dirty environ filled with pestilence and vermin of all kinds. It must have been such an awful and a brutal time period to have endured and Polanski wants to make sure we understand this so we'll be that more amazed by how this little boy survives in it. There are times you almost wish they would break out into song ("Food! Glorious food!") just to lighten the mood a bit--but of course that's an entirely different Oliver Twist. And therein lies the film's problem: too many Twists. By count there's about 18 other versions either done as feature films or television movies/miniseries--and that's not including the Oscar-winning 1968 musical Oliver!. With all of Polanski's talents he could have picked something that was a little less of a retread.
At the turn of the 20th century we meet a tiger family living peacefully in the jungle ruins of an ancient Southeast Asian temple. The two male cubs--Kumal and Sangha (their given "human" names as we come to find out)--are tight as two brothers can be with Kumal being the more brave and adventurous of the two while Sangha remains the shyer more sensitive one. Their happy existence comes to a screeching halt however when a British hunter Aidan McRory (Guy Pierce) invades their world in search of sacred temple artifacts and inadvertently separates the two tiger cubs. Kumal is eventually sold off to a circus where captivity robs him of his spirit. Sangha on the other hand finds brief happiness as the beloved pet of a governor's lonely young son Raoul (Freddie Highmore) until an accident forces the family to give him away to a spoiled prince whose animal trainers turn Sangha into a fierce fighter for sport. A year later the full-grown brothers are finally reunited in a ring where they are forced to do battle for the enjoyment of bloodthirsty patrons--but the tigers end up recognizing each other instead and renewing their long-lost kinship. Together Kumal and Sangha escape their confines and head out to rediscover their roots in the jungle--that is if the big bad white men will let them.
Two Brothers focuses all its attention on the tigers leaving the human actors to serve only in perfunctory roles but Pierce stands out the most as the kindly McRory. The actor infuses the skilled hunter with a realistic outlook; he kills what he considers a dangerous man-eater. Yet by bonding with Kumal McRory eventually becomes the tiger's friend rather than its foe--and it's very gratifying to see him gain respect and admiration for the animals thus laying down his arms. Young Highmore (who will play Charlie Bucket in the upcoming Tim Burton remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) also adds a nice touch as Raoul whose innocence and pure love for Sangha teaches the adults around him a thing or two about caring for wildlife. But of course in a film of this nature mankind will ultimately be the bad guy; there's no way around it. And Two Brothers is chock-full of them--ignorant greedy and mean-spirited as they are.
"This movie is a combination of three of my greatest passions: the animal world a love of monasteries and temples and my fascination with the European colonial period. It was a world that irritated and fascinated but its buffoonery and quirky characters also amused me " explains Two Brothers filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud. As the critically acclaimed director of the 1989 The Bear Annaud knows what he is talking about having done the almost impossible again with Two Brothers--a compelling heartwarming film in which beautiful wild potentially dangerous and very real tigers are the main stars. How does he do it you may ask? Apparently he surrounds himself with the best animal trainers in the world including head trainer Thierry Le Portier. Annaud and Le Portier use about 30 different tigers in all each with their own unique personalities and specialties (i.e. some are better for the maternal scenes; others for the stunts). As well Annaud employs High Definition digital rather than just 35mm cameras (an upgrade since The Bear) which allows longer uninterrupted takes with the tigers. The end effect is mesmerizing as it puts you right there with the gorgeous animals. Some animatronic tigers are used but only in cases where the animals may have been in danger especially in one scene where the brother tigers escape a jungle fire. Of course there really isn't a story per se only vignettes in which you sort of gear yourself up for something bad to happen; that somehow the evils of mankind will prevail--and while Two Brothers still chokes you up it's more out of relief and happiness when everything turns out right.