The tale of Oliver Twist is one that has been reinterpreted in many ways since beginning life as one of Charles Dickens’ most defining pieces of literature nearly 200 years ago. As is the case with any property that ends up in the public domain, a new take on the tale of the orphan boy who gets entangled with a community of pickpockets will never be too far apart from each other. We’ve had BBC dramas, West End productions, musicals, a Disney movie with a cute animated cat, and even an Australian drama where Oliver and Dodger are sent to the colonies. You may be wondering what other possible versions can be left to tell for something that is so burnt into the public consciousness? For the makers of Twist, their answer seems to be; how about parkour!?
This modern-day retelling frames Oliver (played by Raffety ‘Son of Jude’ Law) as a young man, orphaned as a boy, who is living on the rooftops of London, using the city as his playground and canvas for his works of spray can art. When he runs into fellow quick-footed youths Dodge (Rita Ora) and Batesey (Franz Drameh), who introduce Oliver (sorry, Twist, as he likes to be called), to Fagin (Michael Caine), an old art dealer who now uses wayward youths to move forgeries around town and pull off art heists. He is in need of someone of Twist’s skills. Welcomed into Fagin’s community, Twist also meets the beautiful Nancy, aka Red (Sophie Simnett), a fellow skilled free-runner, who is stuck in an abusive relationship with Fagin’s dangerous accomplice, Sikes (Lena Headey).
There are a number of details in this modern retelling of Dickens’ classic tale that already feel desperately old-fashioned and frankly just a bit odd. The most obvious one would be the film’s somewhat obsessive nature with demonstrating parkour. There certainly was a time where parkour was popular both in online videos and cinema, but it has been a long time since the rooftop chases of 2004’s District 13, the foot chase opening of 2006’s Casino Royale, and perhaps most recently the similarly characterised Eggsy of 2014’s Kingsman felt exciting and fresh. That doesn’t stop Twist from overplaying this aspect of our new Oliver as if it were introducing the world to free running, with many an over-edited, spinning camera sequence of our young characters hopping, skipping, and jumping over London’s admittedly picturesque rooftops.
The overly busy action and extreme camera movements very much seek to evoke the stylings of Matthew Vaughan and Guy Ritchie, with the latter’s filmography particularly coming to mind once the film shifts gears into an art heist. Coupled with a soundtrack made up of tired indie-pop tracks (remember Chelsea Dagger!?), it quickly becomes apparent Twist is working with a style that hasn’t been considered cool for quite some time. It is just one of the many aspects of the film that operates at a disconnect. Once Twist (who, in his mid-20’s, really shouldn’t be moping around like an orphaned teen anymore) joins Fagin’s crew, the film becomes a collection of tired heist cliches that forgets to build dynamics between its characters, particularly in the ones we should be investing in, such as the romance between Twist and Red.
It is hard to blame the cast, which is made up of a weird combination of veteran Brits (Caine and Headey), TV stars (David Walliams and a cameo from Keith Lemon) pop stars (Ora) and new faces (Law and Simnett). They are not given particularly strong material to work with, often left regurgitating cliched lines and being asked to put on a wildly varying degree of cockney accents. Their characters’ personalities are taken for granted in favour of an incoherent heist plot that ultimately makes very little sense.
Twist also features two cases of gender-swapping roles from the novel, with both Dodger and Sikes, but this is an aspect of the film that proves to be a somewhat lazy and empty gesture. The film clearly hopes that simply switching the genders is enough to seem more modern and edgy, but once again the characters offer very little beyond what you expect of these particular characters from having seen or read previous versions of the story (as is the case across pretty much all the characters). Headey in particular is given little to do but wear heavy eyeliner, scowl, and have some very uncomfortable scenes with the young Simnett.
There is some aesthetic pleasure to be had in seeing the city of London from its rooftops, and there is pretty decent coverage of areas of London that aren’t always shown (and frankly, I miss the city after being away from it for a couple of months, so it was nice to see it). That is, unfortunately where the freshness ends. The flimsy plotting, lack of deified character relationships, and unoriginal over-edited stylings make Twist a very under-baked take on the classic story, one that seems to have only had one little seed of an idea and made up the rest as it was already far too along, with that idea seemingly being ‘wouldn’t it be cool if Oliver Twist was a freerunner?’ Any hopes that it would be a modern re-telling with some original thought or some care in depicting the experience of young homeless people in a big city are quickly dashed come the first lines of the exceptionally smug voice-over that tells you this isn’t going to be like the story you’ve seen before. In a way they’re right, as it is hard to think of another adaptation with this level of disconnect. An odd messy twist to the Dickens’ tale, that forgets the imagination part of reimagination.
Dir: Martin Owen
Scr: Sally Collett, Martin Owen, John Wrathall, based on ‘Oliver Twist’ by Charles Dickens
Cast: Rafferty Law, Michael Caine, Lena Headey, Rita Ora, Sophie Simnett, David Walliams, Noel Clarke, Franz Drameh
Prd: Ben Grass, Noel Clarke, Jason Maza, Matt Williams
DOP: Håvard Helle
Music: Neil Athale
Country: United Kingdom
Runtime: 90 minutes
Twist is available on Sky Cinema from January 29th 2021.