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Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006 12:59 am

Literary twist

The classics aren’t always boring

Classic novels were once a primary source of material in Hollywood back in its more original days. The moguls had a penchant for raiding everyone from Brontë (Wuthering Heights) to Tolstoy (Anna Karenina) because they were an easy sell to the public. Eventually the public stopped buying, and disinterest may be attributable to a series of boring James Ivory films or the rash of priggish Jane Austen adaptations. Whatever the cause may be, most are given second-class status these days. Unfortunately, a good one such as Roman Polanski’s superior version of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (2005) can slip by without a trace. His recreation of the squalor of 1830s London is nothing short of amazing. Barney Clark (not the artificial-heart guy) stars as the title orphan who falls in with a brood of young thieves who haunt the streets in search of food and scarves. The performances of Clark and Harry Eden as the Artful Dodger are kept at low-key, which avoids unnecessary sentiment and allows the adult actors to take center stage. Ben Kingsley is almost unrecognizable as he creates the perfect embodiment of Fagin, the crotchety mentor of the child gang, and Jamie Foreman is realistically menacing as the evil Bill Sykes.

Polanski’s career has been inconsistent since his idiosyncratic early days, which were distinguished by characters undergoing psychological turmoil (Repulsion, The Tenant) or tortured interpretations of popular genres (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown). He seemed to lose his way after the ’70s, jumping from one failed project to another. Whatever characterized a Polanski film was gone. His greatest successes were respectful adaptations of books (Tess, The Pianist), and this is probably what led him to Oliver Twist, his best film in decades. Forget the snobby stuffiness associated with the word “literary.” Polanski sails through the tale with great vigor, without seeming anachronistically modern. His version of the old story is classic in every sense of the word.
Another Jane Austen movie is certainly cause for concern. Emma and Persuasion might be pleasingly pleasant to the diehards, but they are downright annoying to anyone else. There was no reason to expect anything different from Pride & Prejudice (2005), particularly with unknown director Joe Wright at the helm, but the saga of the Bennet family and their attempts to find husbands for their stable of daughters is surprisingly energetic. Keira Knightley deserved her Oscar nomination as Lizzie, the spunky second-eldest. The perplexing relationship of the mellow father (Donald Sutherland) and the high-strung mother (Brenda Blethyn) provides much comic relief. The classics are not always boring.

New on DVD this Tuesday (Aug. 22): Poseidon, Just My Luck, and Phat Girlz.

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