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Film review: 'Oliver' quite grim — like the novel

OLIVER TWIST — ** 1/2 — Barney Clark, Ben Kingsley, Jamie Foreman; rated PG-13 (violence, mild profanity, brief drugs, brief gore).

Minus the song-and-dance routines that were featured in the 1968 musical "Oliver!" this version of "Oliver Twist" actually becomes a bit of a drag.

Which is not to say that the source material itself — Charles Dickens' beloved novel — is light, bright or cheery stuff. But director Roman Polanski's considerably more straightforward dramatic adaptation is perhaps a bit too grim for its own good.

That does mean it's more in keeping with the tone of the much-filmed Dickens novel, which has inspired more than a dozen movie features and an equal number of television productions. But some of the more disturbing material (it definitely deserves its PG-13 rating) calls into question whether it's appropriate viewing for all ages.

Also, with the story lines streamlined and compressed, the whole thing doesn't have nearly the emotional heft it probably should.

Newcomer Barney Clark impresses as the title character, a melancholy young boy who's forced into manual labor at a cruel orphanage that practically starves the boys to keep them in line. Oliver appears to get a lucky break when he's taken in by a mortician (Ian McNeice), but due to a misunderstanding, he runs away and winds up in the company of Fagin (Ben Kingsley) and the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) and their band of young pickpockets and thieves.

Oliver is caught and accused of stealing, though a kindly bookseller, Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), takes pity on the boy and takes him into his home. Unfortunately, Fagin's partner-in-crime, the cruel Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman), is determined to rob the wealthy businessman, and he wants Oliver to cooperate with his plan.

Obviously, this story is very familiar, and the sometimes somber tone makes it a little less than enthralling.

There are still some things to savor here, though, such as Kingley's mumbling, muttering turn as Fagin (he definitely plays the part differently than Oscar-nominee Ron Moody did in "Oliver!").

And again, Clark is likable, as is Eden as the roguish Dodger. But Foreman's take on Sykes lacks the menace of the late Oliver Reed (who made the role his own in "Oliver!").

"Oliver Twist" is rated PG-13 for violence (a shooting, a beating, violence against women and some child-in-peril moments), scattered use of mild profanity (religiously based), some brief drug content (use of a poison), and some brief gore. Running time: 135 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com