Oliver Twist’s classic themes of good and evil are deliberately blurred in this modern retelling of the Charles Dickens classic. Literary archvillains like Fagin and Bill Sikes, once glaring examples of moral corruption and criminal psychopathy, become mere byproducts of their time. In fact, director Coky Giedroyc’s grittier, reality-based approach to Sarah Phelps’ adaptation contrasts sharply the popular and nostalgic musical account “Oliver!” Nevertheless, this version does stay true to Dickens’ original intent to call attention to social evils in harsh times.
The two-part mini also marks PBS’ updated look for its flagship series. Now broken into three categories for the season, “Masterpiece” features new hosts and a reworking of the theme music. Laura Linney provides the introductions for all adaptations under the Classics banner, here linking Oliver to that other famous British orphan, Harry Potter, and pointing out that “Oliver Twist” was the first English-language novel to feature a child as the main character.
The production has all the hallmarks of the series’ signature period pieces — lush sets, an impressive cast and exemplary production standards. Several characters have been revised to allow for more efficient, smallscreen storytelling, but the basic plot remains the same. Oliver (William Miller) grows up amid a life of hardship and cruelty, unaware that his well-heeled family is desperately looking for him. When he escapes his servitude to a cruel clan of undertakers, Oliver allies himself with Fagin’s gang of misfits and street urchins.
Timothy Spall’s Fagin represents one of the most sympathetic portrayals yet. He’s opportunistic and morally conflicted but treats the children under his care with more compassion than they’ve ever known. This Fagin is more a peacekeeper, a behind-the-scenes man who does what he has to, including working with the dangerous thief Bill Sikes (Tom Hardy from the recent “Wuthering Heights”), in order to keep food on the table. When he meets his eventual downfall, he seems as much a victim of the day’s anti-Semitism as his own criminal history. Similarly, Hardy’s Sikes, while aptly menacing, is portrayed as an alcoholic with a mental disorder rather than the black-hearted sociopath of past characterizations.
Also working hard to keep Sikes under control is his girlfriend Nancy (Sophie Okonedo), the wench with a heart of gold who takes to Oliver because of his innocence and spunk. She somehow knows he’s destined for a better life and serves as his guardian angel. Miller is fine as Oliver — he’s plucky and cute — but he’s pretty much a pawn moved about the board by the other characters in the story.
In past adaptations, the villains stole the show. Here, much more is made of the Brownlows searching for their Oliver, and with the new emphasis, Giedroyc creates an interesting dichotomy between Oliver’s two “families.” Rose (Morven Christie), Mr. Brownlow’s ward and Oliver’s aunt, is just as trapped as Nancy by her social situation. Brownlow (Edward Fox), distraught over the disappearance and subsequent death of Oliver’s mother Agnes, keeps a tight rein on Rose. She is bullied by Brownlow’s grandson Edward (Julian Rhind-Tutt), who alone knows Oliver is his half-brother and a threat to his inheritance. Edward is this miniseries’ real villain, and Rhind-Tutt plays him as a smooth, smarmy and treacherous Wall Street swindler.
A good deal of the humor is muted; hence the Artful Dodger (Adam Arnold) is a more subdued character than usual. Still, Arnold’s Dodger rivals Nancy as the most heartbreaking character — a sad example of neglect and jealousy which, by the end, makes him the most likely successor to Sikes’ criminal legacy.
Director Giedroyc pairs again with her “Virgin Queen” composer, Martin Phipps, and although the music itself is creative and masterful, it’s overzealousness and dissonance — perhaps trying too hard to link the modern-day analogies — often detracts from the film.