Oliver Twist

Masterpiece Classic

Women and Children Last


'Ello, Gu'vnors, and welcome to the Tales of Charles Dickens! A hearty thank you to the folks at PBS for giving me this opportunity.


I'm usually a proponent of true-to the book adaptations, but "Oliver Twist" has entered the popular consciousness to such an extent that it's appropriate for new versions to take liberties. After all, if we can easily imagine an onscreen "Oliver" where the characters burst into songs describing pickpocketing, prostitution, murder, and abuse, we can surely handle a few plot elisions and shifted emphases.



And that's what we get with this series. Coky Giedroyc strips "Oliver Twist" down to a dramatic core that still contains Dickens' social critique, and I like it. The series really sings when zooming in on Oliver's relationships with lady of the streets Nancy and lady of the house Rose, who are explicitly paralleled in Dickens' text. Both heroines in this version are stand-ins for the viewer; they share our modern view of children's innocence and a core sense of justice.

cast.jpg  And true to the Dickens spirit, none of the men in this version understand 'kids these days' at all. Fagin sees his boys as amusing means to an end (so, it would seem does Sowberry, who likes Oliver but not enough to intervene on his behalf). The villains Sikes and Monks obviously see children as utterly expendable. Bumble sees them as dangerous and loathsome creatures who must not be fed meat, as it boils their blood. Even stern Mr. Brownlow is quick to suspect that Oliver is a thief.



Nancy and Rose on the other hand, identify with Oliver because, as women, they're treated with the same patronizing contempt as he is. Rose cannot convince her "uncle" Brownlow to accept her belief in Oliver's goodness, her disgust at Monks' creepy attentions, or her hunch about the family mystery (all of which are right). On the other side of the bridge, Nancy's equally reasonable voice is ignored by Bill Sikes and Fagin when they discuss whether to kidnap Oliver, and her unswerving loyalty to Sikes can't erase his suspicion. Brownlow despises the very sight of Nancy even though she's risking her life on behalf of Oliver.


Affectingly earnest performances by Sophie Okonedo and Morven Christie highlight the characters' similarities. They both undergo transformations while witnessing the physical and emotional scars of Oliver's life. Because these women are not trusted by others, they hold Oliver's reliance on them as sacred and appear willing to go through hell for him.


The twinned treatment of Nancy and Rose also highlights Dickens' theme that the social systems and institutions of the rich and poor are not only similar, but are in fact intertwined (we'll see this re-emerge in "Little Dorrit"). Sarah Phelps' writing and Giedroyc's direction underscore the point by showing the rich characters in a slightly unflattering light and the underworld folks in a slightly better one. Wealthy Monks with his ghastly discolored skin and frightening walking stick becomes almost as sinister and certainly less pathetic than the half-crazed Bill Sikes. Even Brownlow's snobby preconceptions and suspicion lead to tragedy. Meanwhile the portrayals of eccentric criminals Fagin and Dodger follow the trend of being more sympathetic than in the book. Timothy Spall's obsequious Fagin comes across more kooky than cruel, and his mistreatment by an anti-Semitic judge, prison guards and crowd illuminate the prejudices of that time--prejudices that Dickens held when he first wrote the novel.


fagin.jpgThis adaptation's pointed re-indictment of the whole rotten system, from workhouse to courthouse to fancy house, makes the final scene's quick glimpse of domestic bliss less than wholly satisfying, and I think that's quite intentional. The rot of the streets--and the trail of blood left behind in Oliver's short life--cannot be easily shaken off.


As to the individual filmmaking choices, it bothered me little that the Maylies and Brownlows are smooshed together: it makes for fewer improbable Victorian coincidences. I also enjoyed Monks' amped-up evil nature and the darkly comic scenes between Bumble and Mrs. Corney. William Miller was a more active, winsome Oliver than some; it was easy to see why his cherubic face and stoic nature drove all the other characters nuts one way or the other.


I've always found Nancy's fate to be one of the most awful turn of events in all of literature and Sophie Okonedo's powerful performance only made it more difficult to watch. Although I thought Nancy's "haunting" of Bill Sikes seemed out of place in such a worldly story, it was forgivable because it was clearly hard for the filmmakers to let her go. This Nancy is more than the original "tart with a heart of gold" as one Wikipedia editor charmingly put it--she's painfully human.


Finally, Giedroyc's trademark shaky camerawork and eerie contemporary music worked even better in the streets of London than on the moors of Yorkshire. I thought all the jangly guitars set the mood perfectly and I was at the edge of my seat for the entire three hours. (My next challenge for Tom Hardy, who played both Bill Sikes and Heathcliff to the hilt, is to attempt to portray a normal, well-adjusted character. )


This series proves once again that Dickens and television are a match made in heaven. I look forward to the rest of the Dickens extravaganza with even more excitement than I already did, if such a thing were possible! I will leave you with the Artful Dodger's words:  people should not "peach on" each other to "the peelers" because after all "we're muckers, ain't we"? Thank you Dodge, for putting the 19th century London pickpocket's code of "omerta" so plainly throughout this series, and giving us some needed comic relief in the midst of the seedy world you know so well. 


Hi can anyone post where to buy this movie, i saw it once on PBS, but it was only the beginning part
and the darn thing cut off..

Hi James,

You can find Oliver Twist on DVD at ShopPBS.org (Go to "Shop by Series' and find MASTERPIECE Classic).

Hope that helps!

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