I enjoyed the first instalment of the 2007 version of Oliver Twist this evening. BBC Drama at its best. Sumptuous production values. A brilliant adaptation: the screenplay artfully excises padding from Dickens’ text, simplifies some of its unnecessary subplots and excursions, and even adds some clever interludes of dialogue wholly consonant with Dickens’ message. Oliver Twist has a pungent political message and it is not muted in this adaptation.
Fortunately, the political stance has not been warped and wrenched out of shape to fit some self-righteous woke agenda. It really doesn’t need it. Dickens was an ‘activist’ through and through. There is no need for an ‘update’ to a different narrative. The slaves in this story are little white boys, and London girls like Nancy (played by an actress of colour) and – and, all of them, all the Victorian poor.
The acting is phenomenal. I thought at first that William Miller, who plays Oliver, was a bit too cute, a bit like those saccharine pictures of gamins with circular eyes, a trembling blue tear in each corner, that you can buy in Paris. Not so, the kid’s unblinking stare as Sykes tries to frighten him wins Sykes’ approval as a ‘scrapper’. A big deal this. Tom Hardy’s Sykes would have terrified the shit out of me. You thought Oliver Reed was unnerving in the film? Hardy’s portrayal of the psychopathic bully is pitch perfect, down to every nervous tic and lightning mood change. Spall, as Fagin, is diabolical, with an oily voice, huge misshapen face, lank hair and twitching, grasping hands – as ugly physically as he is morally. Sophie Okonedo’s Nancy is heartbreaking: the only character with any redemptive flicker of hope in the whole damned world, her terrible delusion that Sykes is a ‘good man’ leads – well, we know where. I look forward grimly to tomorrow’s episode.
How refreshing to see a production that is vigorously honest to its author’s intentions, not afraid to foreground its universality, unashamed of adjusting, but not traducing, its meanings and accessible to a modern audience without patronising it.
The music is quite funky – and 21st century – and spot on.
PS: Anything with Sarah Lancashire in it gets my vote and Bull’s Eye, Sykes’ Dog, showed us how method acting really works.
The second part of this adaptation did not disappoint until the very end. The judicious simplification of the plot meant that we were spared the untangling which mars the ending of several of Dickens’ novels. You feel obliged to carry on reading when you feel that, to all intents and purposes, the story is over.
However, something was lost. I missed the pursuit and death of Sikes. In fact, unless I blinked and missed something, we last saw him floundering about in a sewer. To be faithful to Dickens, poetic justice must be observed and the wicked punished; unresolved endings are so twentieth century.
It could be argued that grimmer aspects of the novel have been sanitised. The fact that Nancy is a prostitute and a junkie was erased. Bill Sikes had unlikely moments of tenderness. The streets were improbably clean. At least, we were spared the tweeness of the musical, especially the big numbers parodied by the Pythons in ‘Every Sperm is Sacred’.
That said, it was a rip-roaring hour and a half with much to enjoy. It was beautifully crafted and filmed and certain images remain: Sikes’ battered hat emerging from the water where he is hiding with Oliver; Monks with his fingers up Bumble’s nostrils and Mrs Corney demanding her forty guineas; Dodger cringing at Fagin’s execution; Bull’s Eye’s departing tail glimpsed between the legs of other characters.
And I repeat that the acting is uniformly exceptional: Edward Fox’s philanthropic but misguided Brownlow was made for Fox; Julian Rhind-Tutt was horribly creepy; Adam Arnold was interesting as The Artful. I thought at first that he was being underplayed. In the novel, he seems to fade out but here he was given more to do later. His jealousy of Oliver was quite touching.
And finally that dog – give that dog a BAFTA.