What with all the brouhaha "Slumdog Millionaire" has stirred up -- the denigration of India, 0,4412918.story, the whole notion of "poverty porn" -- it's good to get back to basics. "Oliver Twist" premieres Sunday night on "Masterpiece Classic," and who wouldn't give their eye teeth and an autographed copy of "Barnaby Rudge" to find out what Charles Dickens would have to say about the term "poverty porn"? Since, if such a thing exists, he invented it.
Dickens was one of the first novelists to write about poor people, and "Oliver Twist" was the very first adult novel about a child. The stage and screen adaptations of "Oliver Twist" are numerous; perhaps the most well-known is the musical version "Oliver!," which is so tidied up, even Fagin gets to waltz off into the sunset. Indeed, for all its Bollywood trappings, "Slumdog" is essentially a modern reworking, with a game show standing in for the long-lost relations of which Dickens was so fond.
You can't really improve on the story of "Oliver Twist"; the best you can hope for is to bring it to life, which the two-part "Masterpiece Classic" version skillfully does. Liberties are taken, of course, but the essentials remain intact. Oliver (William Miller) is born in the workhouse, gets thrown out for requesting more gruel and spends a little time as an undertaker's apprentice before running off to London, where he is recruited by the Artful Dodger (Adam Arnold) to the tutelage of Fagin (Timothy Spall), the tragicomic godfather/pimp of a horde of young pickpockets.
As is the style of late, the sets are awash in muck, grime and the contents of a thousand chamber pots, the orphans encrusted with dirt and snot, the costumes so realistic you can practically smell them. But what raises this "Oliver Twist" above so many of its predecessors is the terrific casting.
The headline news is Spall, best known in the U.S. for his portrayal of Peter Pettigrew in the "Harry Potter" series. With a long, silky braid and an air of weary craftiness, he captures Fagin's Otherness -- a Jew among Christians -- and keeps the character seesawing in a very human way between caretaker and villain. It's a wonderful doomed performance, steeped in self-loathing and self-aggrandizement.
But Spall is not the only brilliant surprise. Sophie Okonedo ("The Secret Life of Bees") is lovely and amazing as Nancy, a woman beaten into obedience but not submission, who, all evidence to the contrary, still believes in love and honor -- and enough so to stake her life on it. As her brutal lover Bill Sikes, Tom Hardy is sexy enough to explain the relationship and pathological enough to explain the web of fear he casts over everyone around him.
Miller is the keystone of course, and he gives us a tougher, scrappier Oliver than we're used to seeing. This Oliver is no waif. The victim of cruel circumstance, yes, but not without his own resources. A classic hero within the limitations of his age and time.
And it is a difficult time, which was so often Dickens' point, too often controlled by the ignorant and the mad with little sanctuary or recourse offered. The absurd legal system, the corruption of civil servants, the tyranny of social conventions -- all the writer's favorite themes are preserved and showcased here.
It's easy to pay a writer like Dickens homage, much more difficult to do him justice. But this "Oliver Twist" (adapted by Sarah Phelps and directed by Coky Giedroyc) certainly does.
'Masterpiece Classic: Oliver Twist'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)