Updating Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, as Twist does, is a bold move. Usually the lure of the dressing-up box and the chance to lay on the foggy London atmospherics prove irresistible. Film-makers tend to stick with its original Victorian setting. Looking through the many, many adaptations, Twisted stands out. It’s a 1996 update set in in New York’s gay subculture. But for the most part Oliver Twist tends to be set in world of street urchins, top hats, horse-drawn carriages and much dropping of aitches.
Watching the opening moments of Twist, a question arises: when in the early production process did someone suggest bringing Oliver Twist into the Britpop era? And was this wise? Inspired? Suicidal? Genius?
It suits the Brexit mood of early 2021, of course, British exceptionalism and all that. Like Brexit, which looks backwards to a golden age of Britain before the European experiment, the Britpop of the 1990s looked back to the 1960s. So Twist is looking back nostalgically at an era that was itself looking back nostalgically and it makes absolutely no bones about its Britpop stylings.
The whole film kicks off with the 1995 song Alright by Cast (“I guess I’m alright, guess I’m alright”) – the first of many jangly laddish anthems on the soundtrack – before diving into an urgent Danny Boyle-style action sequence, all very Trainspotting, but featuring parkour on the rooftops rather than pounding along the pavement.
Then, the camera pulls back to introduce Raff Law as Ollie Twist, a scallywag, harum-scarum street kid with a spray can ready to grafitti anything in sight. Raff Law is the son of Jude Law and Sadie Frost, two twinkles in the Britpop constellation, and brings a cheeky-chappy charm (plus a sulky slappable quality) to his first major starring role, much as his dad might have done 25 years ago. He’s good casting, as is everyone in Twist.
To get the flimsiest of plots out of the way: Oliver (Twist is his grafitti tag) is picked up off the street by Dodge (Rita Ora) and Batesy (Franz Drameh), introduced to Fagin (Michael Caine), their gangmaster, and co-opted into a scam to gain revenge on an art dealer (David Walliams) wot done Fagin wrong.
Fake art is the hook on which they’re hoping to hang the dealer, so the plot chimes with the production’s mood of cheerful knock-off.
Anyone bridling at Rita Ora, a female!, playing the updated Artful Dodger, will be choking on their own spit to learn that Lena Headey, another female!, plays the updated Bill Sikes, now known just as Sikes. Game of Thrones fans hoping for a bit of Cersei Lannister hissability can rest easy, though there isn’t really that much for her to get her teeth into.
Nancy (Sophie Simnett) is still Nancy, still a female, and remains in thrall to Sikes, as she was in the original story. She also remains his (meaning her, if you follow me) girlfriend, more spit to choke on if same-sex relationships between imaginary people isn’t your thing.
Raff Law is 25 and way too old to be playing an imperilled wide-eyed child learning the tricks of surviving on the streets – in any case we’re told right at the outset that the streets are already his domain – which junks most of Dickens’s plot straight away. Nancy handily plugs the gap, the friendship and eventual romance between initially prickly Nancy and obviously smitten Ollie being sweet and lovely and a genuine emotion in among all the artifice.
Britpop icon Michael Caine playing Fagin should be a cause for celebration but Caine is off his game here, looking unwell, and though he sparkles occasionally, past glories are not recalled.
Think live-action cartoon with no actual acting being asked for or delivered. All concerned are throwing shapes rather than reaching for a character truth or even a consistent performance. The dialogue also strikes attitudes rather than adds psychological depth, and even genuine street Londoners like Rita Ora, a Ladbroke Grove girl, is struggling with the sheer awight geezerishness of it all.
Interestingly, as well as taking a small role, Noel Clarke (another Ladbroke Grover) is a producer, and there’s definitely something of the ragamuffin energy of his Kidulthood series here, in intention if not always in actual execution.
If it does occasionally also feel a bit like Guy Ritchie has got the old gang together for some Lock, Stock revivalism, the prevailing dynamics are a touch too stop-go to make everything gel. Just the one smoking barrel, then, and again I’m wondering when Britpop was first decided on as a mood board.
Look out for the reference to the art auction house Dotheboy’s (rather than Sotheby’s), a tiny but smart bit of actual Dickens referencing in a film which claims at the end to be “based on the novel by Charles Dickens”. But, really, was it?
© Steve Morrissey 2021