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'Twist' unearths tenderness

The film, which remakes a Dickens story, is decidedly dark. But it also sends an illuminating message about the human spirit.

June 04, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

With his bleakly compelling "Twist," writer-director Jacob Tierney has set down Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" in some of present-day Toronto's meanest streets. Tierney's vision is far darker than the 19th century novelist's, but it is more in keeping with the times -- and wholly persuasive.

Tierney has taken the point of view of the Artful Dodger, here called Dodge (Nick Stahl), a scruffy, boyish-looking street hustler in the thrall of heroin, and Fagin (Gary Farmer), an alternately brutal and protective pimp who provides food and shelter for his young prostitutes, who number four or five at any given time, in a loft in the industrial section of the city, not far from a block where male hustlers troll for customers.

Another of their tasks is to recruit new hustlers, and in a coffee shop Dodge spots an innocent-looking Oliver (Joshua Close), a 17-year-old orphan who has run away from his latest foster home. Dodge's offer of a place to stay is immediately appealing to the friendless and near-destitute Oliver, to whom Dodge explains what he'll have to do in exchange for food and shelter but makes it sound as palatable as possible.

Virtual slavery is what it really is. No one need be familiar with "Oliver Twist" for this film to make sense and to generate its own effect. However, those who do know the classic novel are likely to see it as a shrewd move on Tierney's part never to show the evil Bill Sykes on screen, heightening his menace by leaving his physical presence to the viewer's imagination.

Yet his malevolence is felt in every frame of the film. He is a drug dealer who instills an abiding fear not only into his lover Nancy (Michele-Barbara Pelletier), a waitress at the cafe where Fagin's charges hang out, but also Fagin, whom he controls completely, as well as the hustlers. It is pretty clear that it was Bill who got Dodge hooked on heroin.

The heart of the matter is how Dodge and later Nancy try to protect the naive Oliver and how one of the hustlers' regulars, the Senator (Stephen McHattie), may offer a way out for Oliver -- he wants to know all about the youth rather than to have sex. Oliver is drawn to Dodge but cannot comprehend that Dodge is rebuffing him for his own good.

In his ability to discover individuals capable of tenderness and even dangerously selfless concern for others in a brutal, marginalized world Tierney is most affecting. Under Tierney's admirably low-key, unexploitative direction all his actors are memorable and never seem to be acting. "Twist" is decidedly dark but consistently engaging.



MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Adult themes, drugs, some sex, most off-screen

Nick Stahl...Dodge

Joshua Close...Oliver

Gary Farmer...Fagin

Michele-Barbara Pelletier...Nancy

Tygh Runyan...David

Stephen McHattie...The Senator

A Strand Releasing presentation of a Victorious Films production. Writer-director Jacob Tierney. Based on Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist." Executive producers Kevin Tierney and Dan Lyon. Producer Victoria Hirst. Cinematographer Gerald Packer. Editor Mitch Lackie. Music Ron Proulx. Costumes Joanna Syrokomla. Production designer Ethan Tobman. Set decorator Jennifer Chiovitti. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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