Hippo Manchester
October 6, 2005

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Oliver Twist (PG-13)
by Amy Diaz

Charles Dickens, that Jerry Bruckheimer of the 1800s, weaves class satire and anti-Semitism through the tale of a plucky child making his way in Oliver Twist, another of the insufferable books from your high school English days given a big-screen treatment.

Only, unlike the Jane Austen books or even the occasional reworking of Jane Eyre, Roman Polanski (the movieís director) doesnít bother to fun up or make visually interesting this tale. Nor do we get nearly enough tightening up of the plot (Dickens was paid by the word ó I assure you that many of them were unnecessary).

But great literature neednít be funned up, you might argue. Iíd argue that the aspects of Dickens which make him an entertaining read arenít the stories themselves but the details, which are difficult to translate to the screen. His stories, though crammed with characters and subplots, do not feature terribly many appealing, interesting or three-dimensional people. Oliver Twist (played here by Barney Clark) is a perfect example of this. Though the movieís protagonist, heís not an even remotely interesting character. Heís a wimp, tossed about by the story and other characters (who at least get one note to Twistís none) and dragged through all manner of plot without any motivation. An orphan who is passed off from one horrible living condition to another, Twist gets to do little more than tremble and cry, character traits that get increasingly aggravating as the movie pushes us to each new horror.

Itís left, therefore, to other characters to be interesting. Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman), the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) and Fagin (Ben Kingsley) give just enough life to their characters to keep us from falling asleep ó though Faginís Shylock-esque level of stereotype makes you wish you could close your eyes for a few moments.

Dickensí social commentary is the only part of the movie which displays any real zest. The societal safety net built to catch the poor like Oliver is one more likely to strangle a person than protect him. When giving us examples of the absurdities and injustices of such a rigid system, the movie crackles and sparkles with the electricity that makes Dickensí books still worth reading. 

Compounding the sketchy, half-baked nature of Dickensí story is a sterile, passionless tone to the movie. We get a perfect representation of grimy 19th-century England without the sense that it is a lived-in place. Likewise, the actors, though skilled, never really feel like more than people dressed in costumes reciting lines.  At least when Bruckheimer gives us half-baked adventure, syrupy emotion and disinterested acting he also treats us to a few explosions.