The Artful Dodger

The Artful Dodger

As Disney’s The Artful Dodger would have us believe, Dickens’ famed character became something of a Doogie Howser in colonial Australia. Who knew?

According to literature the Oliver Twist character, a notorious pickpocket, was ultimately caught with a stolen silver snuff box, so his transportation to a penal colony is entirely within reason.

Say no more for a rambunctious, hypothetical sequel to his life in the hands of lively Australian creatives as an 8 part series.

In the title role is Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Maze Runner, The Queen’s Gambit) whose energetic Dr Jack Dawkins has grown into a young man making a new life as a skilled surgeon. In the colony of Port Victory his days of crime and misdemeanours are behind him. Like the gruesome scenes of HBO’s The Knick, his pioneering procedures -not for the squeamish- are part medicine, and part showmanship for a leering crowd.

“He’s a liberal and radical, he takes too many risks and he doesn’t follow the rules.”

Yet he also owes the dastardly Darius Cracksworth (Tim Minchin) a hefty debt and if it isn’t paid henceforth, will literally lose one of his hands.

Life gets more complicated when his former partner-in-crime, the crooked Fagin (David Thewlis) turns up in town, threatening to expose Jack’s history unless he helps spare him from the chain gang.

“This isn’t London there’s nowhere to hide here,” Jack warns him.

Meanwhile, Lady Belle Fox (Maia Mitchell) is stifled as the daughter of Governor Edmund Fox (Damien Garvey) and Lady Jane Fox (Susie Porter) and has aspirations of becoming the colony’s first female surgeon. It doesn’t take Charles Dickens to know these two young minds will be thrown together before long.

And with just a little assist from Fagin, Jack may overcome is personal debt. But does it mean returning to his old ways in order to keep his reputation (and his hand, for that matter?).

Creators James McNamara, David Maher and David Taylor, set the scene for a lavish, rollicking miniseries where all of the money is on the screen: sets, costumes, props, crowd scenes bursting with extras.

In the hands of director Jeffrey Walker it is fused with energy from the get-go, seamlessly weaving together all the moving parts so as to expand on the backdrop without losing the personal connections in the foreground. The show even uses a contemporary rock score which, will driving the narrative, also took me out of the time period unnecessarily. Also on the music, composer Antony Partos will likely win awards for his original score.

Thomas Brodie-Sangster is a star in the lead role, with such pin-up looks and charisma you’d be forgiven for thinking Harry Styles was in the world of Dickens.

How has David Thewlis never played Fagin before? He was born for this role, and it’s a pleasure to sit back and watch him with Brodie-Sangster. Maia Mitchell brings zest to her disruptor role, while Tim Minchin and Damon Herriman -the latter as Captain Lucien Gaines- are two more treats in a brilliant ensemble which includes Miranda Tapsell, Luke Carroll, Kim Gyngell, Vivienne Awosoga, Jessica De Gouw, Andrea Demetriades.

Given the series is drawing upon Dickensian lead characters (with import actors) the show does feel more British than Australian, at least in early episodes. You’d hope Disney’s early commitment to producing Australian drama can remain true to Australian voices and stories, rather than as a shooting location.

But there is plenty to like here. It’s a bold idea, handsomely executed and deserving of your best binge time.

The Artful Dodger premieres Wednesday on Disney+