When The Wonderful World of Disney was relaunched in the fall of 1997, Oliver Twist was one of the first films made. The telemovie is based on the book by Charles Dickens, whose rich characters and stories have been ingrained in public consciousness through countless literature classes and hundreds of film adaptations and reimaginations.
This particular filming of Oliver Twist remains fairly true to the text, and a faithful adaptation of such a good book can't be all that bad. The stories open in the North of England, in the year 1825, as a desperate woman gives birth to a son, to whom she manages only to pass a bit of advice and a golden locket before she dies. Six years later, the film provides a glimpse of Oliver leading an unpleasant life in a workhouse. Six more years pass, and Oliver is still struggling amidst hordes of other poor English boys under the shelter of the tough Widow Corney.
At this age of 12, Oliver (Alex Trench) makes the mistake of asking for more food, and soon Widow Corney shows him the street with the least amount of tenderness possible. After managing to steal back his locket, Oliver runs off, orphaned and pennyless, to face the world on his own. His brief travels lead him to the bustling center of London.
There, the first person Oliver has the good fortune of encountering is Jack Dawkins, or as he's more readily known, the Artful Dodger (Elijah Wood). Dodger welcomes the pennyless Oliver into his gang of young pickpockets, a type of Lost Boys who are living (and stealing) under the guidance of Fagin (Richard Dreyfuss). Fagin treats his pint-sized thiefs well, but he wears his flaws on his sleeve, and his values are clearly questionable. As far as he's concerned, Fagin isn't stealing, but merely redistributing the wealth in the vein of Robin Hood.
Of course, beggars cannot be choosers, and as Fagin's place is the only home Oliver can hope for, he accepts it. Still, the boy is reluctant to take part in the "work" that the other boys do. When the time comes for Oliver to make his first steal, it results in disaster, and the orphan is taken into custody. But soon, with the help of his pickpocket target Mr. Brownlow (Anthony Finnegan) and his kind niece Rose Maylie (Olivia Caffey), Oliver not only is out of trouble with the law, but he has a nice home and people who care for him.
Meanwhile, worried that Oliver might "peach" on their operations, Fagin and his associate Bill Sikes (David O'Hara) come up with a plan to get the boy back. This sets forth a situation where Oliver is torn between his two new homes, one offering financial stability and parental figures, and the other representing the only place that took him in.
The film does a fine job of capturing the atmosphere, and the accurate costumes and locations show a level of detail unusually high for a telemovie. At the same time, there is little to make this Oliver Twist stand out from other adaptations, without the gimmick of a full-blown musical form (Oliver!) or a contemporary twist (Disney's own Oliver & Company).
As a protagonist, Oliver is mostly passive, and so if young Alex Trench doesn't make a great impression on the viewer, one isn't really necessary. More memorable characterizations are turned in by David O'Hara as Bill Sikes and Antoine Byrne as his girlfriend Nancy. Here, Sikes is particularly and genuinely menacing, grounded in a humanity which makes him all the more fearful. The intrigue and depth of the Artful Dodger character provide another strongpoint for the film, even if Elijah Wood is too old for the role.
With his prosthetic nose, mole, and scrawny facial hair, Richard Dreyfuss clearly was trying to show his acting range, but his performance always feels just that: a performance. Dreyfuss, who also co-produced the film, is also so coarse and over-the-top that it's tough to see any good in his Fagin, missing the ambiguity of the character as written.
Still, the film succeeds entirely due to the strength of its source. This tale, like many of Dickens' fiction, resonates with modern audiences. Its well-crafted plotting and properly developed characters would enable even the most by-the-numbers adaptation to strike chords and hit some right notes. Even condensed to a 90-minute made-for-TV format, Dickens' tale remains endlessly riveting and the world of impoverished, likeable criminals stays alluring.
Story starts in 1825 in the north of England and quickly moves from the post-childbirth death of Oliver's mother to the day before his 12th birthday. After losing a dare during a breakfast of gruel, he asks Widow Corney (Maria Charles) --- changing gender in one of the most famous lines of literature --- "Please, ma'am, I want some more."
Oliver is tossed from the workhouse and he ambles to London to locate relatives, meeting up with the Artful Dodger Jack Dawkins (Elijah Wood), who introduces him to a life of pickpocketing and to Fagin (Richard Dreyfuss), master of an army of boys who support the elderly curmudgeon.
Telepic follows Dickens' novel closely --- Oliver strikes a relationship of love with Nancy (Antoine Byrne) and fear with Sikes (David O'Hara). An erroneous arrest leads him to the care of Mr. Brownlow (Anthony Finnegan) and his niece Rose Maylei (Olivia Caffrey) and, as the story turns, Oliver becomes a commodity, a hostage and, in its cheery conclusion, a welcome relative.
Director Bill stirs considerable tension and empathy through a series of one-on-one scenes centered on Oliver and Fagin, Oliver and Sikes, Oliver and the key women, and so on. Director of photography Bing Sokolsky keeps the angles taut --- a far cry from the expanse of the '68 musical --- and the actors' compact performances benefit greatly from the approach.
Dreyfuss plays Fagin with a charming tightness, guarded in dealings with adults, open and benevolent toward his boys. Where other adaptations have made his character the cornerstone, here he's almost in a corner as an overseer of the ne'er-do-wells, his miserly nature appearing in flourishes rather than dollops and his compassion for Oliver and privacy a paramount concern.
Wood plays Dodger with an eye of envy cast toward Oliver; he's well aware of a better world, yet he accepts conscription to a life of crime with glee and a sense of honor. As Sikes, O'Hara is a sturdy and constant study in bitterness; Byrne plays Nancy as love personified.
Photography is a well-executed mixture of winter and autumn hues. The evocative score acts as an extra character, adding richness and depth to some scenes and doing little more than giving a gentle prodding in others.