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By Phil Hall | May 19, 2004

One has to admire Jacob Tierney’s audacity in updating Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” from the world of Victorian London street urchins to the orbit of male hustlers in contemporary Toronto. And rather than focus on Oliver, Tierney makes the Artful Dodger (called Dodge for this version) the center of attention. It is clearly a strange and daring experiment and commands attention strictly for being so unusual.

Unfortunately, Tierney’s filmmaking style is flat and deadpan, which works against the highly dramatic and harrowing Dickens story. The drab production design, the very slow unfolding of the story, a reliance on too-long takes and the unusual notion of having the entire cast speak in a mumbly monotone creates an environment of ennui. The absence of a genuine musical score makes matters worse, especially when irrelevant folk singing fills the soundtrack. Even the turgid modernized concept of Fagin’s gang of rogue boys as sexual predators is played down, to the point that there is vague talk of gay sex for hire without bothering to give even the slightest visual hint of tawdry behavior. It is a blatantly nasty story without the blatant nastiness, which makes little sense.

And truth be told, the power of “Oliver Twist” was Dickens’ indictment on the mistreatment of children. The hustlers of “Twist” are supposedly late teens but the notion of exploitation is decidedly different. One can feel deep sympathy for helpless children in peril, less so for able-bodied young men engaging in self-destructive behavior. It also doesn’t help that the actors are visibly too mature for their roles.

As Dodge, Nick Stahl engages in an Acting 101 performance complete with hunched shoulders, deep puffs on endless cigarettes and frequent looks of faux anguish. He is a fine actor (“In the Bedroom,” “The Sleepy Time Gal”) but he gives an uncharacteristically bad performance here. Newcomer Joshua Close is not believable as the innocent Oliver. He is physically wrong for the part (his physique never suggests any emotional vulnerability) and his dazed appearance suggests confusion rather than innocence.

With more daring and style, “Twist” could have been a remarkable effort. In its finished state, it is just an odd curio.

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