Published Jun 01, 2004This update of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist isn't as silly as it sounds, but it's so drably earnest that it makes silliness seem preferable. The new, presumably more "relevant " setting is modern day Toronto though the overly art-directed squalor makes it feel more like Vancouver's eastside and the gang of pickpocket street urchins are now a small bunch of male prostitutes.
In this version, the Artful Dodger is the protagonist, and he isn't a charming young rogue as we might expect, but a shambling, hollowed-out junkie. Each night he and his fellow hustlers stand around outside a decrepit diner trolling for men and hoping to make enough cash so that their pimp, Fagin, and their pimp's shadowy boss, Bill, won't beat the shit out of them.
The director, 24-year-old Jacob Tierney, seems to be making a naïve attempt to redress Dickens' more romantic milieu; it's as if he were screaming, "Look! There are no happy endings! In real life, the Oliver Twists out there live (and die) the lives of homeless junkie whores!" If this reductive sort of dramaturgy is what it takes to make Dickens "more relevant to modern audiences," then maybe he's better off left alone.
When the film begins, Dodge (Nick Stahl) is returning to the hustling scene from some unexplained time off, and he recruits the innocent naïf Oliver (Joshua Close) in the hopes of appeasing Fagin and improving business. From there, the movie pretty much sticks to Dickens' general scenario, but in doing so becomes both more laboured and more ridiculous with every scene. Do male prostitutes in Toronto really live in abandoned factories, sleeping in rows of beds like the orphans in Li'l Orphan Annie? Do they really have Fagin-type pimps, who hover over them like demonic father figures? And would any of them really believe, as Oliver does, that there's still a chance of being adopted by a rich family somewhere?
If a director is going to update Oliver Twist to the world of gay hustling, isn't it fair to expect him to display at least some knowledge of the scene? Updating the classics is always fair game, but if a filmmaker has no fresh insights to offer, why bother? (Lions Gate)