Oliver Twist

cast: Sam Smith, Robert Lindsay, Julie Walters, Keira Knightley, and Alun Armstrong

director: Renny Rye

386 minutes (PG) 1999
ITV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon

Everyone is aware of the immortal line “Please sir, I want some more,” from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. At the end of each episode of this worthy television adaptation, I found myself echoing the sentiment.

Alan Bleasdale’s revisionist adaptation of this Dickens classic certainly raised a few eyebrows when it first aired on British TV. The main bone of contention seemed to be that Bleasdale had written a new first act, concentrating on Twist’s mother and the boy’s arrival into the world. Speaking personally, I liked that the writer did this – most people are overly familiar with the plot anyway, and to flesh-out the backstory was, in my opinion, a bold and interesting move.

The basic much-loved premise of the tale is this: born into poverty and sent to the workhouse of Mr Bumble (David Ross), young orphan Oliver (Sam Smith) has only ever known hardship and poverty, and is only ever shown cruelty and abuse. He ends up on the streets of London, and is taken in by Fagin (Robert Lindsay) and taught to become a pickpocket. While forced to practice his new craft, the child encounters a family that knows far more than Oliver of his own hidden past.

Although I found the Prague locations initially distracting (having been there a few times, I recognised a few familiar streets), I was soon immersed in the machinations of this well-worn story. Like many others, my memories of the novel have been overshadowed by the tremendously successful musical version Oliver! (Carol Reed; 1968), and it was a treat to see the material treated seriously. Instead of too-clean urchins singing and dancing on the fake cobbles, we have pale, filthy characters living hard lives and surviving as best they can on the mean streets of Victorian London.

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If the subject matter is surprisingly dark, then the performances are suitably impressive. Andy Serkis proves that shorn of the CGI disguises of Gollum or King Kong, he can create a human character as monstrous as any imaginary beast – his Bill Sykes is a study in barely restrained ferocity and I doubt I’ll ever forget the intensity in his eyes as he struggles (and fails) to control his inner demons. Emily Woof is also very good as an abused Nancy, her desire to be a better person compromised at every turn by her greater instinct for survival. But the real star of the show is a magnificent Robert Lindsay, whose work here proves without any doubt what a fine actor he really is. His portrayal of Fagin is a revelation: vile, touching, creepy, petty, and ultimately damaged beyond all hope of redemption.

Also worthy of note is Marc Warren. His performance rivals that of Lindsay, and Warren shows himself as a future star as he fleshes out the shady Monks, allowing us to empathise with him and understand his motives for hunting down Oliver. Bleasdale gives him great material to work with, and the actor gives it his all. The only actor who disappointed was Sam Smith, the young lad playing Oliver. I found him too fragile, and his slight presence faded into the background due to the strength of the other performers. Saying that, I do think his role was deliberately downplayed, and he does spend most of the film ill from the mistreatment he constantly receives from those around him.

Most of the liberties taken with the original story seem to improve the structure – although I’m sure the purists would disagree with me here – and remove the necessity to cram too much information into the final act. The score (by Paul Pritchard) is excellent. All things considered, this is the best Dickens adaptation I’ve seen, and sets a new benchmark for the reworking of literary classics for a modern audience.