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TELEVISION REVIEW

A Twist and more in Dickens tale

William Miller stars in the title role of ''Oliver Twist'' on ''Masterpiece Classic.'' William Miller stars in the title role of ''Oliver Twist'' on ''Masterpiece Classic.'' (mike hogan/bbc for masterpiece)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 14, 2009
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There's something just right about PBS having turned the rest of this "Masterpiece Classic" season into all-Dickens all-the-time. Dickens novels take on unemployment woes and the poor house, which is obviously - and frighteningly - relevant to these recessional times. But then Dickens endings are old-fashioned, harmonious, and just, so they can provide us with a little happy escapism, even optimism.

Sure, Anthony Trollope's Victorian novels probably have more to say about the reasons the world is in such dire straits, as they get all up in the faces of political and financial powerbrokers. But Dickens, so compassionate, so epic-minded, will more than do.

And the first Dickens adaptation, "Oliver Twist," bodes well enough for the rest of the season. The two-part miniseries, which begins tomorrow at 9 p.m. on Channel 2, makes missteps aplenty, with tone and plot changes from the novel that will likely offend purists. But it nonetheless has a warm spirit and an original vision, which is more than I can say for Roman Polanski's rote 2005 version.

This "Oliver Twist" gives us a spunky Oliver (William Miller), the orphaned boy who dares to ask for more. He is a Harry Potter-era Oliver, and more resourceful than the waif we're accustomed to. He is sold to undertakers, he falls in with the Artful Dodger (Adam Arnold) and Fagin (Timothy Spall), and he is used by the cruel Bill Sikes (Tom Hardy) and protected by the doomed Nancy (Sophie Okonedo). Writer Sarah Phelps also includes a version of the Monks plot that's left out of most "Oliver Twist" adaptations. In the novel, Monks is Oliver's half-brother, out to destroy the boy.

Phelps and director Coky Giedroyc see fit to soften the characterizations of both Fagin and Bill Sikes, since much of the evil falls onto the shoulders of the eerily imperturbable Monks (Julian Rhind-Tutt). Spall's Fagin is less demonic - in some scenes, forgive me, he made me think of Boy George - and he is clearly a victim of anti-Semitism. Oh, he's still a creep, angling to make the best deal he can on Oliver's life, but we are given sympathetic moments. "Your word ain't worth nothing, Jew," a cop yells at him, and a judge offers him clemency if he will pray to Christ.

Hardy's Bill is also shrouded in pathos - he's less intentionally violent and, in his final plot twist, more self-loathing than expected. Hardy - he was Heathcliff in the recent "Wuthering Heights" - makes Bill both tormented and a tormentor. And we are invited to see Arnold's Dodger, who is a canny man-child, as a young Bill, before life and circumstances turned Bill into a monster.

The best part of "Oliver Twist" may be the casting of Okonedo, who was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar for "Hotel Rwanda." As Nancy, she is plagued by conscience, and yet Okonedo doesn't overdo the angst. She is the lone woman in Fagin's den - the movie doesn't provide her with her friend Bet - which makes her all the more heartbreaking.

Alas, the worst part of "Oliver Twist" has to be the aggressive soundtrack, a brash attempt to charge Dickens with modern energy. Turning a miniseries into a loud railroad crossing didn't drive the story forward so much as it drove me to distraction.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

OLIVER TWIST Starring: William Miller, Timothy Spall, Tom Hardy, Sophie Okonedo, Edward Fox, Julian Rhind-Tutt

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Tomorrow night, 9-10:30

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