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(2005) (Barney Clark, Ben Kingsley) (PG-13)

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Drama: A young orphan must deal with a host of unsavory characters, criminals and the circumstances they create for him in 19th century London.
It's 19th century London and Oliver Twist (BARNEY CLARK) is a 9-year-old orphan who goes from one bad situation -- slaving away and starving in a workhouse for beadle Mr. Bumble (JEREMY SWIFT) -- to another such as working for and living in undertaker Mr. Sowerberry's (MICHAEL HEATH) home and workplace where he's terrorized by the man's wife.

Having enough of that, young Oliver sets out on foot for London where he runs into Artful Dodger (HARRY EDEN), the leader of a pack of pickpockets and shoplifters who bring home their daily booty to their ringleader Fagin (BEN KINGSLEY). Always open for another petty criminal hand, Fagin takes in Oliver and feeds and educates him in the ways of the boys' trade. He also meets Fagin's criminal acquaintance Bill Sykes (JAMIE FOREMAN), that man's girlfriend, the comely Nancy (LEANNE ROWE), and eventually Sykes' criminal partner Toby Crackit (MARK STRONG).

While watching Dodger and another boy "working," Oliver is mistakenly pointed out as the one who tried to pickpocket Mr. Brownlow (EDWARD HARDWICKE), a proper gentleman who, upon learning of Oliver's innocence, decides to take in the boy and give him a proper upbringing. Yet, Oliver's past acquaintances won't let him be, eventually kidnapping and forcing him to assist in a robbery of Brownlow's home. From that point on, things spiral out of control for all involved.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Although I'm not much of a fan of either kind, there are two types of movie remakes. There are those that simply want to make a quick buck off the name recognition of a previous film or TV show. Then there are the ones that are the latest entry in a long line of adaptations of older material. Much like theatrical revivals of previously successful stage shows (where it's something of a badge of artistic honor to appear in a well-known work), such films usually stem from the masters such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

Such is the case with the latest revival, adaptation, remake or whatever you want to call it of the latter's "Oliver Twist." I have no idea how many theatrical and TV movies have preceded this one, but there have been many including David Lean's from 1948 and the award-winning musical from 1968, "Oliver!" Thus, you have to wonder what inspired critically acclaimed director Roman Polanski ("Chinatown," "Tess") to take on this beloved, well-known and seemingly tapped-out material.

While competently staged, told and performed, the visually impressive but mostly emotionally disconnected film doesn't capture the sense of isolation that the director so perfectly created in "The Pianist." While thematically related to that 2002 picture -- a loner tries to get by while dealing with the adverse effects of society and authority figures' decisions regarding him -- this film shows both the strength (in written form) and weakness (the results on the screen) of the source material.

In the original work, the title character is a sympathetic figure for sure, but he's really a vehicle for Dickens' satire, ridicule and attack on the social classes of Victorian London. That's easy to discern here -- and a little of it goes a long way in today's storytelling world where far worse things have been tackled, resulting in such material pretty much seeming quaint -- but the problem lies in the otherwise empty vessel that is the title character.

All of the action and observations occur through his eyes, and although we feel sorry for him and root for his success, that's mainly by default as the character otherwise isn't terribly engaging. That's not really a fault of young Barney Clark ("The Lawless Heart") who embodies him. Yet, when compared to the title character in the similarly plotted and themed "Nicholas Nickleby" (also written by Dickens) this one comes up far short in creating a character we really like.

The other major problem is the inevitable, episodic nature of the film's first half. It's unavoidable because so much ground is covered and so many characters are crammed into the novel's early chapters, and Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist," "Being Julia") obviously feel obligated to include as much of the source material as possible. The result, however, is that the plot feels fractured as it jumps from one circumstance to the next.

Things settle down for the better once the main plot thrust kicks in, but for a while Oliver feels like a baton at a track and field relay race where he's passed from one mean character and bad situation to the next. That finally ends with the infamous pickpocket mentor Fagin, played here to over the top glory by Ben Kingsley ("A Sound of Thunder," "House of Sand and Fog").

Nearly unrecognizable under all of the makeup and tattered clothes, the veteran actor knows he's supposed to ham it up, and he goes "full boar" (sorry, couldn't resist) here. Jamie Foreman ("Layer Cake," "Elizabeth") is appropriately menacing as the real villain and Harry Eden ("Peter Pan") plays the appropriately named lead pickpocket Artful Dodger.

It's Leanne Rowe ("Warrior Queen," "Jane Eyre") as the apparent hooker with a heart of gold (a cliché, I know) and eventual conscience, however, who embodies one of the more compelling characters. With all of the plot machinery and social satire constantly in motion, however, her and the other's characters never get the chance to blossom and/or deepen to any real, appreciable extent.

Technical credits -- the cinematography, production design (including sets) and costumes -- are all topnotch, nicely recreating and interpreting the varying levels of life in Victorian London. The place looks, feels and even seems to smell real.

I supposed you could do worse than delivering a competent adaptation of a classic work. Coming from an auteur like Polanski, however, and working from the "why bother if you're not going to do something special with the source material" philosophy, the results are likely to be somewhat disappointing to those expecting more than what ends up on the screen. This latest version of "Oliver Twist" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 12, 2005 / Posted September 30, 2005

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