- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

Roman Polanski and Ronald Harwood were Academy Award-winning collaborators, as director and screenwriter, on “The Pianist.” They have provided curious motivations for reuniting on a new movie version of Charles Dickens’ enduring classic of child neglect and crime, “Oliver Twist.”

Mr. Polanski wished to direct a movie suitable for his children, ages 7 and 12. “I thought it was time to film something that they could watch without saying… that ‘Harry Potter’ is much better,” said the director, quoted in the American Cinematographer.

Mr. Harwood sets himself up for a fall in the pages of Premiere, where he recalls, “Roman and I watched the 1948 version by David Lean, which is considered the best, and we felt it was slow and overly sentimental. … We felt we could do better.”

While it’s a hoot to learn that Mr. Harwood intended to show Mr. Lean a thing or two, shoddy execution has caught up with him. If there’s a fresh approach in the Polanski-Harwood remake, torpor obscures it. This is the first dramatization in my experience that runs out of gas before Oliver can reach London and even get into the clutches of such hardened criminals as Fagin and Bill Sykes.

The idle disparaging of the Lean version seems even nuttier when you observe that its famous bravura opening — a depiction of Oliver’s doomed mother trekking through a gale in order to reach the workhouse where her child is born — has no comparable illustrative and melodramatic counterpart in the new movie. Moreover, Mr. Harwood’s distillation of the plot, which has always needed streamlining onstage and on-screen, seems to forget Oliver had a mother — and that memories of her might endure in more than one surviving character.

The Polanski-Harwood fiasco puts no particular stamp on a classic vividly and memorably filmed in earlier generations. It creaks and plods when you’d prefer to see it ignite or at least sizzle.

Ben Kingsley’s squinty-eyed Fagin lacks the inflammatory weirdness of Alec Guinness’ portrayal for Mr. Lean or Ron Moody’s musical-hall finesse for Carol Reed in “Oliver” (1968). The menace projected in these earlier adaptations by Robert Newton and Oliver Reed as Sykes is reduced to an almost farcical lumpiness by Jamie Foreman.

It is striking to see Nancy portrayed by a much younger actress, Leanne Rowe, providing a fresh vulnerability to her degradation and sacrifice. But in some ways the Lionel Bart song score for “Oliver” has already beatified Nancy beyond hard usage, in the act of singing “As Long as He Needs Me.”

The new Oliver, Barney Clark, is an appealing figure, and there are sharp performances by Harry Eden as the Artful Dodger, Michael Heath as the undertaker Sowerbelly and Mark Strong as a foppish confederate of Sykes and Fagin. But the earlier directors were probably in better touch with what scholar John Bayley called the “waking nightmare which is the imaginative principle of ‘Oliver Twist’” when they cast Olivers with exaggerated angelic faces.

The more flamboyant the social contrasts and character attributes, the more effective this material seems to be. The latest “Oliver Twist” settles into a long winter’s nap before any semblance of a waking nightmare can take hold.

*1/2

TITLE: “Oliver Twist”

RATING: PG-13 (Sustained ominous elements; occasional graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Cinematography by Pawel Edelman. Production design by Allan Starski. Costume design by Anna Sheppard. Music by Rachel Portman.

RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes

WEB SITE:www.sonypictures.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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