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Oliver Twist (2007)

Watching a new BBC Television adaptation of an old classic often gives the viewer the chance to reassess the original film versions. So long ago, I paid to go and see the film adaptation of Oliver Twist based on the novel by Charles Dickens, starring Alec Guinness and Robert Newton. They were formidable as Fagin and Sikes, dominating the proceedings with their menace and David Lean’s brilliant direction. Perhaps that’s why John Howard Davies, who played young Oliver, went on to have a career based on comedy. Anyway, I was musing throughout this latest television adaptation by Sarah Phelps, and I was struck by number of quite different thoughts. Let’s start with the workhouse. This was suitably bleak and seemed to be completely lacking in any attempt to educate the children. This leads me into the old nature/nurture debate. In this version of Dickensian reality, it seems Oliver Twist (William Miller) will always emerge from the horrors of deprivation and abusive punishment with almost complete innocence and a trusting nature. He immediately feels different when meeting the Artful Dodger (Adam Arnold) and subsequently going through grooming by Fagin (Timothy Spall). He almost instantly relates to Mr Brownlow (Edward Fox). This is disturbing. Mr Bumble (Gregor Fisher) has it right when he says almost every boy from the workhouse ends up a career criminal, i.e. transported or hung. Charles Dickens is playing the game of binary opposites. Oliver is not the Dodger, Fagin is not Mr Brownlow. It’s odd that having introduced Noah (Adam Gillen) in the opening sequences at the undertakers, he does not reappear with Fagin. The whole point of Noah in the novel is that we see him as a bad lot and have this confirmed when he later joins Fagin in London. This is the career expected of all those of a criminal disposition. Somehow Oliver is immune from this fate. He’s the changeling who immediately fits in with the Browlows of this world.

William Miller as quite a well-fed Oliver

The decision to cast Sophie Okonedo as Nancy is rather pleasing although I’m not convinced anyone brought up in the East End would be so quickly motherly to the likes of Oliver. Julian Rhind-Tutt as Edward Leeford (or Monks when he meets with criminals) is decidedly the most personable villain we’ve seen for a long time. He’s a delight which is not really the impression he ought to be creating. I prefer him to be rather more Gothic. The decision to make him the grandson of Mr Brownlow is bizarre. Although Charles Dickens also plays with coincidence by having Oliver burgle the house of Rose Maylie (Morven Christie), who later proves to be his his aunt, putting all the main characters in the same London household makes the whole plot too contrived. I understand that it saves money on finding and filming at different locations, but the whole point of the adaptation should be to make the best version of the original as possible, not write something second-rate. As proof of this, in the novel, Monks throws the necklace and ring into the river and does not carry incriminating evidence around with him. He may be dangerous, but he’s not completely stupid.

Fagin (Timothy Spall) and Sikes (Tom Hardy) underneath the arches

Tom Hardy as Sikes is good but somehow lacks the brooding physicality I normally associate with the role. He’s somehow mellow and capable of peaceful moments whereas Robert Newton or Oliver Reed managed to remain fearsome all the time. This rather undercuts the emotional force when he murders Nancy. Although the wandering around in the woods only to end up back in London is not untrue to the melodramatic original, the implication he would commit suicide in a sewer pursued by her ghost is out of character. The original accidental death as he’s pursued by the Bow Street Runners across the rooftops is far better. He would never willingly give up. Worse, he would never carry Oliver back to London after the failed burglary. I suppose it makes for good television to have Nancy nurse him back to health, but this is forced from the decision to have Sikes rescue him. Although it’s strange the Maylies would call in a doctor to treat the wounded Oliver, that’s what Charles Dickens preferred with the rehabilitation of the boy followed by the illness of Rose.

Sophie Okonedo as Nancy

Watching the Artful Dodger grow up is done well. Having him inherit Bullseye and stalk off into the crowds after the hanging is a nice touch.

This Fagin is not really a criminal gang-master but a rather broken-down fence, easily intimidated by Sikes and his ilk. The lair is well-appointed with beds and Fagin does a good breakfast for the boys. Unlike earlier versions, this Fagan also seems to feel some sympathy for Oliver. In short, he doesn’t seem bad enough. Which leads me to a final note of bemusement. In this adaptation, the trial of Fagin offers him the chance to avoid hanging if he converts to Christianity. This is not in the original text and I find myself unable to understand why this note of anti-Semitism should have been introduced.

So this version of Oliver Twist is good in part, but fundamentally undercut by the central performances of Timothy Spall as Fagin and Edward Fox as a completely wooden Brownlow. Insofar as they are intended to be binary opposites, the view of Fagin offering Oliver sausages for breakfast is just too much like the gesture you might expect at the hand of Mr Brownlow. Sadly, the production is let down by the script and some of the decisions taken by Coky Giedroyc as director. If only the team had taken off its rose-tinted glasses, we would have had a better view of the London Dickens was describing.

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  1. April 15, 2012 at 3:42 am

    This is great book!

    • April 15, 2012 at 3:55 am

      Well, I agree that it’s a great story but, like most Dickens, I find it difficult to read with any enthusiasm today. When I was growing up, we lived as three generations in one household. My grandmother had a matching set of the “classics” including all the titles by Dickens, so my mother read them to me as I was learning to read — she was ambitious for me. What was interesting rather more than sixty years ago has lost its appeal. The only good thing is that all the titles are now out of copyright and available online. I could check the trial scene in seconds to answer the question on Fagin recanting his religion. That’s a positive step forward.

      • April 15, 2012 at 3:56 am

        Dear david, I have this book by Dickens on Serbian. This is very old book – edicion from 70’s.

  2. April 16, 2012 at 3:57 am

    I read most of his books when I was a teenager. Brilliant!

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