Conventional, straightforward and very much within what used to be called the Traditional of Quality, this handsome film is a respectable literary adaptation but lacks dramatic urgency and intriguing undercurrents. Sony/TriStar will have no trouble positioning this as a prestige fall release but B.O. looks to moderate levels.

Without his name on the credits, it would be difficult to identify the latest version of “Oliver Twist” as the work of Roman Polanski. Conventional, straightforward and very much within what used to be called the Traditional of Quality, this handsome film is a respectable literary adaptation but lacks dramatic urgency and intriguing undercurrents. Coming off the director’s Oscar win for his last film, “The Pianist,” Sony/TriStar will have no trouble positioning this as a prestige fall release on ramp-up to its Sept. 23 opening, but story’s modest impact in this umpteenth screen retelling looks to limit B.O. to moderate levels.

Just as Polanski was drawn, 27 years ago, to Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” for the opportunities it provided to meaningfully embellish a story designed to express the arduousness of life, so one could imagine that he would be drawn for similar quasi-autobiographical reasons to Dickens’ tale of an orphan boy forced to make his way in a treacherous world.

The biggest surprise, then, of his “Oliver Twist” is that it seems so impersonal. In fact, it’s very close to what a director such as William Wyler or George Cukor might have done with the story in the Hollywood of 70 years ago, albeit not as colorfully acted. And it doesn’t approach the impact of the dark version David Lean directed in 1948, a film that for long stretches resembles silent cinema and one that was so controversial for its characterization of the Jewish villain Fagin that its U.S. release was delayed for three years, and then came out significantly cut.

Rather than as a tapestry of life’s trials and tribulations, Polanski and his “Pianist” scenarist Ronald Harwood approach the classic tale as something of a boy’s adventure yarn. Dispensing with the harrowing episode of Oliver’s birth and his mother’s death, pic opens on Oliver’s arrival on his ninth birthday at the workhouse, where he joins dozens of other youths doing menial labor until he’s exiled for his presumptuous request for more gruel at mealtime.

After a disagreeable spell working for an undertaker, Oliver makes his way on foot to London, where he’s quickly taken under wing by the Artful Dodger, top boy among the pre-pubescent lads working as pickpockets for the sniveling, devious Fagin. Hunched over, dressed in layers of rags, with matted reddish hair and missing several teeth, Ben Kingsley’s creation looks a fright (and would assuredly smell even worse), although he is decidedly without the exaggerated hooked nose and nasal intonations that made Alec Guinness’ interpretation in the Lean version so invidious to some.

So although Fagin technically retains his place as a criminal, Kingsley and Polanski appear most interested in attempting to humanize him, to argue that, even though he takes advantage of his boys and makes them break the law, this might be preferable to their fates if they were left to their own devices on the streets. In the service of this view, Kingsley does a fine job, instilling Fagin with a certain feebleness and insecurity that make him more pathetic than hateful.

Unfortunately, it’s a level of performance unmatched by most of the other actors. In any Dickens adaptation, one expects a raft of fabulous supporting actors to flesh out the author’s inimitable characters. Oddly, Polanski has chosen to employ little or unknown thesps, a tactic that can work when surprise or lack of previous associations are important but which has an indifferent effect here. Leanne Rowe’s doomed Nancy breaks through with a few markedly emotive moments, while others are adequate but unexceptional.

Crucially, Barney Clark is disappointingly wan and unengaging in the title role, giving the film a hole in the middle; when he disappears for a spell in the latter-going, it’s a bit of a relief.

Professionally but without inspiration, pic reenacts the key scenes that will be familiar to many via the book, previous film and TV versions and/or the musical.

Saved for the very end, the most interesting scene, in that it has appeared in none of the other prominent versions of the story and attempts to cast its principal characters in a fresh moral light, shows Fagin in prison just prior to his execution. Oliver insists upon paying a visit to forgive this half-insane “wretched man.”

Pic conveys the impression of Polanski coasting through this one, rather than investing much of himself or injecting it with the unmistakable personal touches that reliably marked his earlier work. Shot in Prague on extensive sets, it’s a good-looking enterprise outfitted with detailed production design and costumes. Rachel Portman’s score hits the dramatic musical cues with frequent obviousness. With its PG-13 rating, film is probably a bit strong for kids much under that age.

Oliver Twist

France-U.K.-Czech Republic

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release (in U.S.) of a TriStar Pictures and R.P. Prods. presentation of an R.O. Films, Runteam II Ltd., Etic Films S.R.O. co-production. Produced by Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde, Roman Polanski. Executive producers, Timothy Burrill, Petr Moravec. Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay, Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Charles Dickens.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Pawel Edelman; editor, Herve de Luze; music, Rachel Portman; production designer, Allan Starski; supervising art director, Keith Pain; senior art director, Jindra Koci; costume designer, Anna Sheppard; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS), Jean-Marie Blondel; re-recording mixer, Dean Humphreys; visual effects, Motion FX, VFX Éclair; line producer, Michael Schwarz; assistant director, Ralph Remstedt; casting, Celestia Fox. Reviewed at Clarity screening room, Beverly Hills, Aug. 19, 2005. (In Toronto Film Festival--Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 130 MIN.

With

Fagin - Ben Kingsley Oliver Twist - Barney Clark Bill Sykes - Jamie Foreman Artful Dodger - Harry Eden Nancy - Leanne Rowe Mr. Brownlow - Edward Hardwicke Mr. Limbkins - Ian McNeice Toby Crackit - Mark Strong Mr. Bumble - Jeremy Swift Mrs. Bedwin - Frances Cuka Mr. Sowerberry - Michael Heath Mrs. Sowerberry - Gillian Hanna Magistrate Fang - Alun Armstrong Workhouse Master - Andy De La Tour Dining Hall Master - Peter Copley Old Woman - Liz Smith

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