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Polanski’s ‘Oliver Twist’ is too straight

David Germain Associated Press

After the devastating emotional rawness of Roman Polanski’s Holocaust drama “The Pianist,” the director’s take on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” is an oddly distant and disappointing affair.

Other than its rich, technically sumptuous production values and a wickedly gnarled performance by Ben Kingsley as den-of-thieves master Fagin, Polanski’s “Oliver Twist” has little to distinguish it from the many other fine and proper adaptations of the orphan boy’s adventures.

The very familiar story is told practically by rote, so literal an adaptation by Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood that the tale comes off rather stagnant and stale.

A Holocaust survivor as a boy himself, Polanski surely had bottomless empathy with the plight of one intrepid child undaunted by the abuse and malice of a social system at best indifferent, at worst vindictive, toward its neediest youth. But whatever kinship Polanski feels for young Oliver translates to the screen only as a sturdy but unremarkable portrait of a literary icon so well-worn he’s almost a cliché.

Oliver, played by 11-year-old London actor Barney Clark, is an orphan boy brought up in Britain’s heartless workhouse system that treats such cast-off innocents as expendable nuisances. For his tenacious spirit, including the audacity to ask for more gruel for him and his half-starved brethren, Oliver is farmed out as an apprentice to an undertaker’s business, where he is so beaten and maltreated he runs off to London.

Oliver falls in with the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) and other boy pickpockets commanded by Fagin, gleefully played by Kingsley with a perverse mix of paternalism and treachery.

What follows is a straightforward rendering of the tug-of-war for Oliver between Fagin and his associates, including the abominable thug Bill Sykes (embodied with vicious abandon by Jamie Foreman) and the kindly gentleman Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), who takes a fatherly interest in the boy.

Uniformly fine performances, led by Kingsley, Foreman and the adorably urchinlike Clark, help hold Polanski’s pedestrian adaptation aloft. Leanne Rowe provides one of the film’s deepest emotional connections as Sykes’ woman Nancy, tragically torn between her good heart and her love for a scoundrel.

Reuniting with collaborators who helped him viscerally re-create the Warsaw ghetto for “The Pianist,” particularly production designer Allan Starski and costume designer Anna Sheppard, Polanski presents a dazzling portrait of the London slums in the 1830s.

The London streetscapes built on a movie backlot in Prague are the real stars of Polanski’s “Oliver Twist.”

Coming from Polanski, you expect surprises, you expect unconventionality, you expect deep emotional resonance. You expect, pardon the pun, some real twists.

You don’t expect the story to flow so predictably, at such a measured pace, that it borders on bland and ponderous.

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