'The Artful Dodger' Gives the Dickens Character an Energetic, Engaging and Entertaining Down Under Twist
You'll want some more of this new take on the pickpocket first penned in 1838, which is set in 1850s Australia.
December 07, 2023
For nearly two centuries, everyone has known the Artful Dodger's story. Charles Dickens wrote the character, aka Jack Dawkins, to life in 1838's Oliver Twist — and readers have thumbed through the pickpocket's part of the famous tale ever since. But what happened once the book's narrative ended? What if Fagin's light-fingered apprentice is on the straight and narrow 15 years later, living in 1850s Australia? What if he is a navy-trained surgeon now plying his trade while living on the other side of the world from London, and great at it? What if Fagin is still alive despite Dickens' words on the page, too? In fact, what if the thieving ringleader is the latest convict arrival to the penal colony, crossing paths with his old pal with a plan that cares little about Dodge's new upstanding reputation?
If you're wondering how the Aussie-set The Artful Dodger can exist, that's how: by sinking into the above scenario. Australian-made as well, with Jeffrey Walker (The Clearing), Corrie Chen (Bad Behaviour) and Gracie Otto (Seriously Red) directing, the Disney+ series that arrived on Wednesday, November 29 is not an origin story — it's an after story. Getting caught with a silver snuff box might've wrapped up Jack's exploits for the author who created him, but the latest iteration of the figure lives on from there for The Artful Dodger creators James McNamara (also one of the show's writers), David Maher (The Commons) and David Taylor (Bloom). Their take also turns its antics in the fictional Port Victory into a riff on The Knick, plus a romance.
Two decades on from Love Actually, Thomas Brodie-Sangster (The Queen's Gambit) plays the show's namesake, joining a long line of actors who've done the same — many musicians, including Davy Jones from The Monkees onstage in the 60s, earning a Tony Award nomination; Phil Collins, also in the theatre in the same era; and Rita Ora in 2021's worth-avoiding crime-drama movie Twist. As in his big Christmas-movie break, Brodie-Sangster is again concerned with affairs of the heart, with The Artful Dodger's lead casting benefiting from bringing its star's best-known role to mind. In the festive rom-com, he was a kid cutely grappling with adult emotions. Here, he spiritedly steps into the shoes of an all-grown-up figure who acted wiser than his years when he was a child, too-large attire to match. Although no one saw Brodie-Sangster as the Oliver Twist version of Dodge, imagining it is easy because remembering him as a 13-year-old is that instantaneous.
Also similar from Love Actually: Brodie-Sangster's character having an older guiding hand by his side, albeit with mischief and scheming this time. David Thewlis (Landscapers) gets wily — one of his finest on-screen traits — as Jack's former mentor, who isn't willing to let their links fade away. The Artful Dodger isn't a two-hander, but its biggest international names make a lively and engaging pair. Thewlis' Fagin isn't the villain, either, with both the script and the Fargo, Macbeth and I'm Thinking of Ending Things talent's performance expanding the part beyond the scoundrel — even if much of the criminal mastermind's focus is on convincing Dodge that his illicit know-how shouldn't be retired.
This eight-part series also enlists a hefty lineup of Aussies, from Damon Herriman (The Portable Door), Miranda Tapsell (Aunty Donna's Coffee Cafe), Susie Porter (Mercy Road) and Tim Minchin (Upright) to Damien Garvey (Troppo), Jessica De Gouw (C*A*U*G*H*T) and Kym Gyngell (Black Snow). Chief among the homegrown cohort is Maia Mitchell (Good Trouble) as Lady Belle Fox, daughter of the Governor (Garvey) and an aspiring doctor herself — not that a female surgeon is approved of in the show's period. Familiar Australian faces aren't the only constant reminder that this is a local production. Beginning with Wolfmother's 'Joker and the Thief', the anachronistic soundtrack spins on average one Aussie track per episode, including from Spiderbait, Jet, INXS and The Living End. Playfulness abounds, then, in a series that's a caper as well.
Narrative-wise, Dodge endeavours to keep on the up and up, despite a shady gambling debt to pay to crooked harbourmaster Darius Cracksworth (Minchin) on penalty of losing a hand. Given that he needs his two mitts to continue his line of work, his devotion to staying legit is quickly tested. Fagin is officially his servant, but is really the devilish force whispering in his ear — in-between ample gloating about how his pilfering instructions all that time back helped his protégé earn his new calling, teaching him the dexterity required as a cutpurse. Complicating the already chaotic situation is the ever-present Captain Gaines (Herriman), who loves nothing more than sending whoever he can to the noose. Once he becomes certain that Jack and Fagin have more than a few reasons to take the drop, he's relentless.
Jack is the colony's best doctor, repeatedly besting the drunken professor (Gyngell) in charge of the hospital and his chosen successor Rainsford Sneed (Nicholas Burton, Safe Home). Accordingly, it's only in Belle that he meets his professional match. She's deeply uninterested in just finding a husband no matter what's expected of her. She's also an avid subscriber to and reader of medical journals. So springs an arrangement where her booksmarts help Jack with his patients — the very concept of germs and their role in causing infections isn't on anyone's radar until she mentions it — and he lets her put her self-taught skills to practical use. So flies sparks, too, amid an evident class clash, bloody surgeries with a live audience, Jack and Fagin trying to avoid the hangman, and a pilfering bushranger (Tapsell) drawing attention their way.
As its fondness for Aussie rock makes plain, The Artful Dodger is energetically told, and also anything but an old-school period piece. Walker, Chen and Otto take the same cues visually and in the show's fast pacing, making for rollicking and always entertaining viewing. Wanting more comes swiftly, primarily thanks to Brodie-Sangster, Thewlis and Mitchell, however. While everything about the series knows that this is a lark, its key trio not only sell it but give it depth — no bait-and-switch required.
Check out the trailer for The Artful Dodger below:
The Artful Dodger streams via Disney+.
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