Though some details of Charles Dickens’ novel are conflated in this new adaptation of the classic tale, overall this is an admirable re-telling. Originally created as a made-for TV series, five episodes gave director Coky Giedroyc enough space to add some details from her own vision of the story, with the help of writer Sarah Phelps. In this new version of the story of an orphaned boy who overcomes an unlucky birth, general adversity, and outright malice to find happiness with a new family through a bizarre series of serendipitous events, Oliver Twist (William Miller) has a spunky spirit, though his bland, angelic features won’t give it away.
Each episode starts with a slightly off-key circus theme, showcasing the maudlin cast of characters one by one in their dingy urban glory. A greasy long-haired Fagin (Timothy Spall) crowns the credit sequence with a grotesque bow after whirling on the camera and giving a sinister grin. Fagin is one of the strongest characters in the production, showing a great depth of emotion that ranges from scrabbling to keep himself and the boys who he has trained to pick pockets alive, to loyalty only to himself and his pet bird Ezekiel, to a stubborn devotion to the Jewish faith which reveals him as principled and only human after all.
The score of the whole series is refreshingly unconventional. Rather than sticking to one genre of music, a variety of instrumental pieces underscore critical scenes. Oliver’s well-known walk up the aisle of the children’s workhouse where he spends his miserable youth is accompanied by a rollicking guitar riff sequence. “Please sir, I want some more.”
Once Oliver gets free of his slave-like boyhood home and reaches London with barely the clothes on his back and no shoes on his feet, he’s quickly picked up by the Artful Dodger. Dressed in manky top hat and tattered tails, Adam Arnold plays the grungy little pickpocket with aplomb. It turns out that the top hat and crushed velveteen jacket is a sort of urchin uniform, as the rest of the boys in Fagin’s thief stable are similarly garbed.
Fagin’s quarters are sumptuous, in a poverty-stricken sensual sort of way: plentiful greasy food, a flickering fireplace, and colorful handkerchiefs hanging from criss-crossing laundry lines. Fagin snaps one down to give Oliver his first lesson in picking pockets.
The warm yet dingy, crowded yet cozy space of Fagin and the street boys contrasts strongly with the ‘home’ Oliver has left: the workhouse he grew up in was filmed in grays and smoky blues, smacking of misery and an indefinable chilliness. From the flickering candlelight of the London street community, Oliver’s environment is changed yet again, as he is taken in by a kindly older gentleman and his gentle ward, Rose. The home of these upper echelon residents is lit with natural light, and largely colorless. Even the curls of the sweet elderly housekeeper are bleached. From a uniformly white bedroom to an equally pale sitting room, there is no doubt that Oliver has left the squalor of the workhouse as well as the life of a petty criminal behind.
Until, of course, Bill Sikes and his partner Nancy snatch him back again, afraid that Oliver will rat out Fagin and his crew. Fagin has a new plan for Oliver, when a gentleman who calls himself Monks charges him with killing the boy for mysterious reasons. Monks (Julian Rhind-Tutt) is such a caricature that his evilness manifests itself physically in the shape of a splotchy birthmark on his face. In the end, all the pieces of the puzzle are put together because of this identifying mark, and Monks comes across as a truly psychotic villain as he refuses to apologize for wanting Oliver dead.
Sikes (Tom Hardy) is malicious and violent, true to Dickens’ original character, and Nancy (Sophie Okenedo) balances his cruelty. Okenedo gives a moving performance as the young woman who sees that she can make a difference in someone’s life by helping Oliver escape Monks’ clutches, even after she helped Sikes and Fagin recapture the boy. Nancy’s empathy and despair at the harshness of the life she is embroiled in reveals a depth of character that brings out Oliver’s true nature as well: when given the chance to remember the mother he never knew but has fiercely defended all his life, Oliver pays tribute to Nancy instead.
An additional feature of this DVD is a behind-the-scenes look at some of the changes the screenwriter and director made to Dickens’ story. A New Twist on Oliver Twist is a wonderful exploration of the actors’ comments on the project. The costume and set designers also get a chance to talk about their roles in the production. Taped during the original filming, it’s great to get the viewpoint of actors who are still in full costume.
Clearly everyone involved with the adaptation was thrilled to be a part of it all. Miller is particularly enthusiastic in describing how he got the part of Oliver, and Arnold delights in demonstrating how his native north London accent is vastly different from his mastery of the Artful Dodger’s “souff” one. In either time period, they’re just a couple of boys, even with all the hard knocks 19th century London could throw at them.