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Oliver Twist takes yet another turn. You know the story. The orphan who wanted more, please, and Mr. Bumble the beadle, Fagin the fence, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes, the golden-hearted streetwalker Nancy, Mr. Brownlow the benefactor, and the rest. If somehow you don't know it, if you missed the book in school and all the foregoing screen treatments, counting the Broadway musical without the surname, or if you're too young to have ever had a chance, here it comes again, in full color -- even if the sort of colorless color often favored for period depictions of hard times and bleak houses -- and with enough slices of ham for almost the entire cast (Ben Kingsley, Jamie Foreman, Edward Hardwicke, Jeremy Swift, Ian McNeice, et al.), except, fittingly enough, for the pale, pitiful, deprived lead (Barney Clark). The imperious Magistrate Fang of Alun Armstrong merits special mention (a dab of mustard with his ham), as do a couple of particularly picturesque episodes: the break-in at the benefactor's house on a dark and stormy night, and the climactic rooftop flight of Sikes and his hostage under a full moon and above an angry mob.
On the whole, however, this is nowhere near as robust a transcription of Dickens as, for instance, the recent Nicholas Nickleby, a less-told tale, to say nothing of the black-and-white David Lean treatment of 1948, going over the same ground twenty minutes faster. Rachel Portman, who composed the rousing score for Nickleby, does what she can to help out here as well, with unobtrusive underlining and a velvety main theme. But this one needed a lot more help. The familiarity of the story -- the frequency of its telling -- spreads a carpet of mud over the ground at the outset. (Even the first time through, the solicitation of sympathy is apt to seem awfully hard-sell.) Then, too, the motivation for filmmaker Roman Polanski cannot have been at an all-time high, although it's not hard to see how the predicament of a hapless little plaything in the capricious hands of fate might have had real meaning for him. And if anyone in this oversensitive age could get away with a stereotypical portrayal of a crabbed old Jewish miser, it would be someone who had just paid up his Holocaust dues in The Pianist.