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With: Ben Kingsley, Barney Clark, Leanne Rowe, Mark Strong, Jamie Foreman, Harry Eden, Edward Hardwicke
Written by: Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Charles Dickens
Directed by: Roman Polanski
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images
Running Time: 135
Date: 09/11/2005

Oliver Twist (2005)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Dickens, You Say

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Roman Polanski has made a perfectly agreeable and entertaining new Oliver Twist, full of beautiful art and costume design and a few breathtaking vistas. It would be a proud feather in the cap of any aspiring filmmaker.

But there's far more at stake here. Polanski is no aspiring filmmaker. Having recently won an Oscar for The Pianist, and having crafted many masterworks over half a century, he has quite a reputation to live up to.

Moreover, Charles Dickens's 1838 novel has been filmed, in various forms, some two dozen times already: silent films, short films, animated cartoons, TV movies, mini-series, sketches, etc. Three of those, Frank Lloyd's Oliver Twist (1922), David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) and Carol Reed's Oliver! (1968), leave some big shoes to fill.

On that level, the new Oliver Twist disappoints on several counts. The Twist story, with its poor eponymous orphan going through interminable psychological torments on the streets of a muddy, corrupt London, seemed perfect fodder for Polanski, who specializes in lone heroes and their inner demons. Picture an Oliver Twist a little like Repulsion (1965) or The Tenant (1976) -- or even The Pianist -- and we might have something.

But the film errs on the gentle side; even Lean's version is scarier. Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) have begun by taking out all references to Oliver's heritage, which automatically deletes a certain amount of suspense.

Additionally, Polanski's Oliver (Barney Clark) is terribly passive and muted, and it's difficult to crawl into his tattered shoes. John Howard Davies in the 1948 version had the proper haunted eyes and pouty lips, but the best Twist has to be Jackie Coogan in the underrated 1922 silent version. Coogan, who had just appeared in Chaplin's The Kid, had an awesome screen presence, and an innate talent for pathos.

The new film also changes Fagin, that old grifter and corruptor of children, smoothing out his Jewishness and making him a bit more dewy-eyed -- even adding in a kind of retribution for him. In the role, Ben Kingsley pulls off some wonderful tricks, making Fagin devious and sad and heartbreakingly likeable. Kingsley competes with the great Alec Guinness in the 1948 version and -- the best -- the always-tragic Lon Chaney in the 1922 version. (With Chaney's gift for makeup, the role was tailor-made for him.)

Perhaps Polanski's worst stumble, however, is the film's pace. At 135 minutes, it tends to lag during the final quarter, when the Bill Sykes character (played here by Jamie Foreman) becomes the focus. Sykes is evil, no question, but Polanski can't find the character's center and paints him simply as a one-dimensional, moustache-twisting baddie.

One thing Polanski does best is the portrayal of the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden). His skillful bits of pick-pocketing come across like fluid acrobatics, and it's a delight to watch. In essence, each version of the film has something it does better than all the other versions, and each can be enjoyed as such. If you're looking for an "ultimate" version, there's always the book.

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