Dickens' classic tale of class separatism and the search for love and belonging gets an intimate take from director Tony Bill. Rather than explore the malicious depths of Fagin and Bill Sikes (so expertly played by Alec Guinness and Robert Newton in the 1948 adaptation), Bill keeps the p.o.v. squarely focused on 12-year-old Oliver (Alex Trench) as he staggers between Fagin's thieves' den and the luxuriant living of the Brownlows. Most audiences' filmic introduction to the story was the Oscar-winning musical "Oliver!" from 1968, and the perky brightness of that depiction does indeed inform this interpretation. Language is updated, evil and good are painted with faces ugly and beautiful and the congenial nature of everyone Oliver encounters is amplified to surreal proportions.
Story starts in 1825 in the north of England and quickly moves from the post-childbirth death of Oliver’s mother to the day before his 12th birthday. After losing a dare during a breakfast of gruel, he asks Widow Corney (Maria Charles) — changing gender in one of the most famous lines of literature — “Please, ma’am, I want some more.”
Oliver is tossed from the workhouse and he ambles to London to locate relatives, meeting up with the Artful Dodger Jack Dawkins (Elijah Wood), who introduces him to a life of pickpocketing and to Fagin (Richard Dreyfuss), master of an army of boys who support the elderly curmudgeon.
Telepic follows Dickens’ novel closely — Oliver strikes a relationship of love with Nancy (Antoine Byrne) and fear with Sikes (David O’Hara). An erroneous arrest leads him to the care of Mr. Brownlow (Anthony Finnegan) and his niece Rose Maylei (Olivia Caffrey) and, as the story turns, Oliver becomes a commodity, a hostage and, in its cheery conclusion, a welcome relative.
Director Bill stirs considerable tension and empathy through a series of one-on-one scenes centered on Oliver and Fagin, Oliver and Sikes, Oliver and the key women, and so on. Director of photography Bing Sokolsky keeps the angles taut — a far cry from the expanse of the ’68 musical — and the actors’ compact performances benefit greatly from the approach.
Dreyfuss plays Fagin with a charming tightness, guarded in dealings with adults, open and benevolent toward his boys. Where other adaptations have made his character the cornerstone, here he’s almost in a corner as an overseer of the ne’er-do-wells, his miserly nature appearing in flourishes rather than dollops and his compassion for Oliver and privacy a paramount concern.
Wood plays Dodger with an eye of envy cast toward Oliver; he’s well aware of a better world, yet he accepts conscription to a life of crime with glee and a sense of honor. As Sikes, O’Hara is a sturdy and constant study in bitterness; Byrne plays Nancy as love personified.
Photography is a well-executed mixture of winter and autumn hues. Van Dyke Parks’ evocative score acts as an extra character, adding richness and depth to some scenes and doing little more than giving a gentle prodding in others.