It’s fitting for PBS British drama showcase ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre to raise the curtains on its 30th anniversary season with a handsome, richly detailed six-hour (yes, that’s a three-night commitment) adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.”
The well-plotted, emotionally involving mini is the kind of production this mostly reliable pubcaster fixture has been cranking out season after season. The fact that this time around, they’re giving us a radically different version of an old familiar tale is icing on the cake, or more cream on the scone, so to speak.
Most viewers may associate “Oliver Twist” with the Carol Reed 1968 musical, starring the angelic Mark Lester as the orphan who dared to ask for more soup. Others may remember David Lean’s masterful 1948 adaptation, starring the late Alec Guinness, quite unforgettable as the villain Fagin. This new version of the book, adapted by Alan Bleasdale, promises to leave a completely different impression. Nobody sings the praises of “Food, glorious food” here, and Oliver isn’t even born until 90 minutes into the first episode.
The filmmakers have made the brave decision to reveal the back story about Oliver’s parents before they take us along on the journey to Fagin’s underworld and his pack of juvenile criminals. In the opener, we learn how the young Agnes Fleming (Kate Winslet-look-alike Sophia Myles) becomes pregnant by the weak-minded, cowardly Edwin Leeford (Tim Dutton). When Leeford inherits a fortune from his uncle, his scheming wife (Lindsay Duncan) and her epileptic son (Marc Warren) decide to take advantage of the situation to get their hands on some easy money. Then, there’s the matter of a secret will, and a stolen locket with information about Oliver’s parents. Although the second night’s installment could easily lose an hour in the edit room, viewers should be hooked on the addictive plot machinations and well-drawn characters by the time Oliver is in the clutches of Fagin (needlessly portrayed as an amateur magician, here.)
Helmer Renny Rye (whose previous credits include the acclaimed adaptations of Dennis Potter’s “Karaoke” and “Cold Lazarus”), has a hell of a time with his well-picked roster of character actors. Julie Walters, who plays the scheming Mrs. Mann and Michael Kitchen as the kind-hearted Mr. Brownlow leave quite an impression, as do the villains of the piece Robert Lindsay (Fagin), Lindsay Duncan (Elizabeth Leeford) and Marc Warren (Monks). Also, viewers would have to be heartless not to root for tyke thesp Sam Smith, who manages to offer the right mix of innocence and resilience in the title role.
In addition to Walter McGill’s exquisite location lensing in Prague and Cumbria, this version of “Oliver Twist” is also a treat for the ears. All those Cockney speeches are accompanied by a lovely score by Paul Pritchard, with additional music by Elvis Costello (yes, the Brit rocker).
It should be pointed out that Dickens was only 26 when he finished the novel. The big revelation at the end of the project is not really about Oliver’s fate, but how weak and lackluster most other contempo film and TV shows seem when compared to the Victorian master’s books. Is it too much to ask for a smidgen of his insights in human foibles and brilliant plot executions in what comes out of Hollywood today? To paraphrase poor Oliver, “Please, sirs, can we have some more?”