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A New Twist on an Old Classic: Masterpiece's "Oliver Twist"

I think that, were he alive today, Charles Dickens would have approved of Masterpiece Classic's new adaptation of Oliver Twist (which aired in the UK in 2007 as five half-hour installments), which launches this Sunday on PBS.

Unlike previous adaptations which have remained firmly rooted in the novel's Victorian roots, this Oliver Twist, written by Sarah Phelps (EastEnders) and directed by Coky Giedroyc (Blackpool) with visual flair, grafts a very modern sensibility onto the typically Dickensian story of the workhouse orphan forced to fend for himself in a London populated by grifters, murderers, and child thieves.

It's no surprise that Phelps, who adapted Dickens' novel, has written more than 90 episodes of downtrodden British soap EastEnders; here she imbues the story with the heightened sense of reality typically found in soaps, boldly structuring the condensed plot into slickly provocative bursts of drama, making it virtually impossible not to get sucked into the story. And Giedroyc stages the action as though it were seen through almost circus-colored glasses: it's spectacle and filth all rolled into one as the mini-series seems populated by a colorful population of silk handkerchiefs, menacing crows, rain-slicked cobblestones, and velvet jackets.

The cast of Oliver Twist is top notch. Cast as the sympathetic orphan Oliver who finds himself struggling to swim in a cesspool of human depravity, William Miller is a remarkable find; he manages to pull off the difficult challenge of appearing both brave and courtly without being boorish or weak. Timothy Spall's controversial turn as thieves' overlord Fagin is both creepy and hysterical; he brings such a world-weary approach to the role that hasn't been seen in other adaptations; his ability to spin on a dime (or, one could say, a pence) between lordly generosity and rageful reproach needs to be seen to be believed.

As Nancy, Sophie Okonedo brings new depth to the classic role of bad girl with a heart of gold; it's clear from her eyes her utter loathing of her abusive boyfriend Bill Sykes (Tom Hardy) and her love for Oliver's believe in right over might. As the birthmarked Monks, Julian Rhind-Tutt brings just the right amount of menace and furtive manipulation to the part to make the misguided character convincingly nuanced and not a stock mustache-twirling villain. (Also filling out the cast: Moven Christie, Gregor Fisher, Sarah Lancashire, Anna Massey, Nicole Walker, Rob Brydon, and John Sessions.)

All in all, Oliver Twist is a remarkably modern take on a classic story of good and evil and of greed and honesty that is well worth your time and the perfect way to spend a cozy Sunday evening. One doesn't need to be a thief or a workhouse orphan to see that.

Masterpiece Classic's Oliver Twist will air the first of its two parts this Sunday on PBS. Check local listings for details.


Anonymous said…
I'm really looking forward to this! Masterpiece has showcased some great adaptations lately and, based on your review and the excellent cast, Oliver Twist looks like it will also be a winner. Thanks for reminding me that it was on this weekend!

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