Oliver Twist (1999)


In its thirtieth year of production, Masterpiece Theatre once again undertook one of the most beloved classics. Oliver Twist, the story of a "un-corruptible" little boy in a terrifying world of evil men and leering characters. The screenplay takes dramatic license with much of Dicken's original work and in doing so both strengthens and weakens the actual tale. The addition of a prequel involving Oliver's parents and their sad story actually enhances the viewing experience, but its manipulation of the character of Fagan removes the remarkable, charming, and sinister villain of the literary work to a much more low-key and even oftentimes pitiable figure. The six hour timeline seems somewhat lengthy, particularly in the middle scenes, but the climax more than rewards the patient viewer as all the fiends meet their just end and happiness is rewarded to the faithful.


Agnes Fairfield (Sophia Myles) is the eldest daughter of a respectable country businessman. She is in love with her father's best friend Richard Leeford (John Quarmby) but knows her father would disapprove of the match due to the difference in their ages. Richard is fairly well off but suffering in the after-affects of an intolerable marriage to a cruel woman who has taken his son abroad. He's allowed Agnes to believe his wife is dead, hoping to pay off the woman quietly and be married to his newfound attachment. Then the news comes. Agnes is pregnant and doesn't know how she's going to bear telling the truth to her father. Richard must make an effort to gain his old friend's agreement for their marriage without "being killed." He approaches Mr. Fairfield with good intentions but cowardice takes over and he flees the house, grateful for relational problems which call him away. A wealthy uncle in Rome is believed dying due to a growth on his neck, and plans to leave his nephew with the vast estate.


Promising Agnes he'll come back, Richard flees to Rome. Her father has noticed how pale she's become and sends for the doctor. Inevitably, the truth comes out. Agnes is humiliated. Her father knows she has ruined them and takes his daughters into the country for the length of her confinement. She refuses to give the name of the man responsible. In the meantime, Richard's hastily-penned letter to his wife has brought the woman (Lindsay Duncan) and her deranged son Edward (Marc Warren) in pursuit. Knowing he's about to become a wealthy man, Elizabeth plans to murder him. The deed is carried out, but alas, a clause in the will leaves everything but a small yearly sum to his unborn child. If they cannot contrive the money legally, they will find some other way. His illegitimate wife and child must be found and killed. But Edward's sensibilities do not allow him to harm anyone and he fails. 


Agnes is so terrified and distraught over the news of Richard's death that she flees into the world. Her child is born in a workhouse and the mother dies, leaving only a locket as identification. The trinket is stolen and the child named Oliver Twist. Nine miserable years pass before he's brought to the workhouse to earn his bread. Through many mistrials and cases of abuse and mistreatment, Oliver (Sam Smith) falls in with the charming but dangerous Fagan (Robert Lindsay), the beautiful prostitute Nancy (Emily Woof), and her abusive, murderous boyfriend Bill Sikes (Andy Serkis). He also unknowingly makes the acquaintance of his father's best friend, Mr. Brownlow (Michael Kitchen), and is still pursued mercilessly by his half-brother, who is determined to see him ruined.


What makes this retelling remarkable is the stunning performances by the leading cast. Sam Smith has the cherub face of an angel but his Oliver is hardly a pushover. The little boy can be quite monstrous when he puts his mind to it, always fighting against evil toward the good. He refuses to pick pockets, protests his innocence when framed, and never fails to win over those around him. Even Fagan comes to like him, though he rapidly gains Nancy's good affections. Michael Kitchen is just the right blend of gentle humor and good intentions, the kind-hearted man who takes in wayward boys off the street and refuses to accept it when they've gone out again "taking something of mine with them." But the real gems of the tale are Robert Lindsay and Andy Serkis. Lindsay brings the eccentric, self-protecting Fagan to life beautifully. You never know what's up his sleeve and I found it hard to believe this was the same actor who made a name for himself as the resolved, dignified Pellew in the Hornblower series. Serkis is abominable to the point of the audience greatly desiring to see him dismembered for his cruel treatment of Nancy.


Though this has been adapted by Disney, transformed into a musical, and other retellings are often billed as "classic children's literature," Oliver Twist is excessively dark, violent, and melancholy. Older audiences will find themselves enthralled with Dicken's memorable characters and sinister events, but it's definitely not "literature lite." There is humor in the eccentric habits of the characters, but it overlays a very dark tale of kidnapping, theft, and murder. Evil takes center stage throughout much of the production, following the exploits of the Leefords in their never-ending quest to claim wealth, and the aftermath of the criminal underworld. The first two hours are considerably light in contrast to later events, and even then follow a young woman's fall from society, humiliation, and death. There is some language present, usually in the form of mild deity abuse ("Good God!") and some profanity. A woman is called a "b*tch," and a "whore." Two minor characters work as prostitutes but are never seen plying their trade. A bawdy song is overheard in the background at a tavern. Bare-chested men with towels wrapped around their waists are shown in a sauna, one of them with a grotesque growth on his neck. 


Minor characters make suggestive remarks to one another. A woman is shown suckling a baby at her breast. It's implied a man spends the night with a woman who is not his wife. (The pillows are mussed the next morning and he's in a "good mood.") There's an incredibly insensitive birthing scene in which the camera shows the doctor from behind between Agnes' spread legs. This scene is shown twice and goes into great detail. I disliked this element more than anything else. Violence abounds throughout the production. A man drinks poisoned wine and falls to the floor in a convulsion. He is then stabbed in the chest. Edward is prone to epileptic fits, falling to the floor, foaming at the mouth, and jerking around. He bites his own hands. Trying to kill Agnes, he throws her to the floor, places his hand over her mouth, and threatens her with a knife. Oliver is whipped at the work house several times, as well as kicked and abused by older boys. Sikes often slaps Nancy around, once with bloody results. He beats a woman to death, first punching her to the floor (she has blood on her face) and then taking up a wooden instrument and hitting her with it. (The camera pans out to avoid seeing impact.) A man falls to his death attempting to flee the police, slamming into some boards placed across a water culvert. His lifeless body is shown afterward. Another speaks incoherently about being hung.


I also found fault with the pace of the film. It moves swiftly enough to prevent the viewer from becoming bored, but fails to give motivations. We don't know until the third episode why Oliver is being persecuted, only that it has something to do with a "clause in the will." Even then the introducer for Masterpiece Theatre tells us, not the script itself. The storyline is often confusing for people without some knowledge of the direction of the story and the book's lingering narrative. Some actions are left entirely unexplained. With Fagan, we're not sure if he's a lunatic or just excitable. None of Dickens' works are exactly light reading and their adaptations fare little different. But they all impart the battle for good over evil and the ultimate destructive path of folly. They are full of virtue as well as interesting characters and unforeseeable twists. For older viewers, Oliver Twist is a darkly entertaining saga of a little boy's life. 


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