Oliver Twist (review)

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To be sure, this is a handsome adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic tale of blah blah blah. All the bits are in place: the “Please, sir, I want some more,” the kindly coffin maker and his mean ol’ wife, the Artful Dodger and Fagin and Sykes, the saintly Mr. Brownlow, and through it all, one cute little British kid with huge sad eyes dressed in rags. The only thing missing is the Why. What made director Roman Polanski (The Pianist) and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (Being Julia) decide to mount this story now? Did they find some new relevance for today in Oliver’s rags-to-riches adventure, and if so, why didn’t they share it with us? Young Barney Clark is a charming lad, but he’s not a strong enough presence to account for Oliver’s almost superhuman resistance to the misery around him; likewise, Harry Eden (Peter Pan), despite his cunning preadolescent smirk, just ain’t artful or dodgy enough as Oliver’s mentor in thievery. It’s not the kids’ fault: Polanski seems so intent on giving us a grimly elegant big picture that in his focus on production design, he misses the people. Oops, except for Ben Kingsley (A Sound of Thunder) as Fagin, whom he lets run embarrassingly wild. In only one moment does the film really spark into life: The courtroom scene in which Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) defends the mistakenly identified Oliver against charges of theft before a sanctimonious judge (Alun Armstrong: Van Helsing) is a glorious roundrobin of accusations and misunderstandings that captures Dickens’s satire beautifully. Unfortunately, there’s another 130 minutes of movie around it.

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