Roman PolansKi need not explain why he remade Charles Dickens’ oft-told tale of the poor orphan who gets a bum deal at every turn. Oliver Twist is a classic, and artists rework classics time and again. It’s what artists do, and Polanski’s delivered up enough of his own classics (The Pianist, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, etc.) to give him rights to pretty much dig up any old text he’d like and remake it. Plus, it’s not like folks today can’t relate at least a little to the bleakness of 19th century working-class London. These times aren’t that less trying for a poor motherless child. (A more appropriate question, though, might be why Polanski is helming a kid’s flick? Isn’t that a bit like letting Williams S. Burroughs babysit?)

Polanski and Pianist writer Ronald Harwood are faithful to Dickens — merely scraping off a layer or two, and losing, for example, such complexities as the story behind Oliver’s parentage. The filmmakers are quite loyal, only, like the orphaned Oliver, they needn’t have been so nice.

One would hope Polanski, of all people, would be provocative, would push storytelling to the limits, would breathe new life into an old tale, but he’s far too proper, giving us an Oliver that’s as good-mannered and kindly as the title character. It’s so true to Dickens’ vision, in fact, that it almost makes you yearn for a few song and dance numbers and an exclamation point (“Food, glorious food ...”).

Only Ben Kingsley enlivens the story with his turn as Fagin, the old salt responsible for the corruption of the gang of boys who try to recruit Oliver. Kingsley lends Fagin a bit of pathos, but just enough to make his betrayals and conniving ways seem pitiful rather than despicable. Otherwise, the characters are flat. Not even the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), seems to be having a good time of it, and what more dynamic character is there than the Dodger?

There’s no real complexity of emotion in the young Oliver, either. Barney Clark is sweet, with puppy dog eyes and bit of melancholy about him, but overall he plays Oliver far too meekly to really win anyone over. His reserved performance makes Mr. Brunlow, Oliver’s would-be benefactor, appear somewhat unwarranted in his devotion to the boy.

Visually, Polanski depicts the appropriate coldness and cruelty — with the boys running through crowded city streets paved in cobbles slick with unmentionable filth. The sight of Oliver’s bloodied, shoeless feet running through those puddles after having walked 70 miles to London is heartwrenching. But neither the script nor the performances have the emotional grip of Polanski’s pictures.

As it stands, Polanski’s Oliver Twist will prove too dull to win over muggle-born youth, who can’t wait for this fall’s installment of another orphan movie, only that one goes by the name of Potter.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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