At the risk of opening up the unending vortex of Christmas opinion pieces by uttering the name of said film, Thomas Brodie-Sangster – now 33, but still supremely youthful-looking – has come a long way since playing the kid in Love Actually. His latest role in Disney+ miniseries The Artful Dodger, dropping just in time for silly season, suggests that one of Charles Dickens’ most memorable characters has come a long way, too. All the way to Australia, no less.
Jack Dawkins – aka the Artful Dodger – is one of the ‘roistering and swaggering’ young thieves, employed by malignant criminal overlord Fagin, who manipulates the eponymous Oliver Twist in Dickens’ rollicking story that depicts the unfortunate beginnings and subsequent redemption of its titular hero. First published in serial form before being bound as a three-volume book in 1838, the misadventure delivers a considerably less fortunate outcome for Jack.
After he’s caught red-handed with a stolen silver snuff box, it’s intimated that Jack will be transported to the penal colonies recently established by the invading British forces. A fate made explicit by The Artful Dodger’s trio of showrunners, James McNamara, David Maher and David Taylor. But things haven’t turned out quite as tough luck for the street-sweeping snatcher as that destiny might suggest.
Cutting to it
As we continue Jack’s story a good few years on, he has somehow evaded an unfortunate end, setting himself up as a respectable surgeon, performing hair-raising and often game-changing procedures (including amputations) while his drunken superior Professor McGregor (Kim Gyngell, a good sport) snoozes. Trust us, it’s better for the prof’s patients if he’s not involved.
Not that Jack’s hung up his nuisance ways entirely, with the show opening by establishing that he funds his surprisingly meagre existence, despite the flashy gig, by gambling with a spot of pick-pocketing to manage his then-astronomical £23 debt. Which allows for a fun chase sequence opener leading from a docked boat to a teeming marketplace, with Sydney’s golden sandstone edifices as the perfect backdrop for this period piece that harnesses an anachronistic soundtrack, including Wolfmother’s ‘Joker & The Thief’.
It’s not just his gambling that threatens Jack’s newfound semi-respectability – it’s financial security. His old master Fagin (Landscapers star David Thewlis) also winds up transported down under. ‘If it helps, I do feel bad about this,’ he tells the imprisoned younger lad in a foggy London-set flashback, but that’s not overly convincing. Especially when, reunited, he finagles his way into Jack’s ‘service’ and cramped digs by blackmailing him, threatening to reveal who the ‘good’ doctor really is.
Of course there’s also a spot of ‘Will they, won’t they?’ romance thrown in with the obligatory pushback delivered with good pep by singer-songwriter and actor Maia Mitchell as the well-heeled Governor’s daughter Lady Belle Fox. She’s smothered by a boring life of corsets and no opinions please, sneaking out at night to practice her self-taught medical know-how, thereby teaming up with Jack with a hint that more may follow from this union. Top marks for the gruesome cat cameo revealing that a surgery floor gives good snacks.
David Thewlis as Fagin. Image: Disney+.
Speaking of body parts, Thewlis really comes into his own as Fagin explores new ways to rort the system, harvesting a sex worker woman’s coccyx from said body part scraps to pass off as a holy relic, with his response to a naïve priest’s enquiry if a made-up martyred saint ‘touched the bones’ a saucy highlight. ‘Very often, I’d imagine.’
Stand and deliver
If the show gets off to a slow-ish start, struggling to wrangle a large ensemble that also includes Damon Herriman giving Mendo a good run for his Australian villain status as the chilling Captain Gaines and The Drover’s Wife actor Jessica De Gouw as his conflicted wife, it does pick up steam.
Top End Wedding lead Miranda Tapsell is particularly promising as Frances Scrubs, a gun-slinging bush ranger-style robbing highwaywoman. Still, the characters of colour remain frustratingly sidelined halfway through the show, with four of eight episodes supplied to reviewers, with The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart’s Vivienne Awosoga and Erotic Stories’ Fayssal Bazzi also in the mix.
Coming off the back of a spate of early colonial period dramas of varying degrees of seriousness that includes ABC’s Gold Diggers and SBS show New Gold Mountain, both of which play in vaguely similar sandboxes, it’s not quite as bawdily funny as the former nor as dramatically captivating as the latter, but shows promise that later episodes will hopefully deliver.
Corrie Chen, who helmed all four episodes of New Gold Mountain, brings more buzz to the third and fourth chapters, with The Clearing co-directors Gracie Otto and Jeffrey Walker handling the rest of the series.
Dickens’ writing is a high bar to vault over, but Brodie-Sangster’s nimble presence brings a light-footed, spritely energy, anchoring the many moving parts bobbing up and down in The Artful Dodger. Here’s hoping Jack’s at-risk good standing unravels in increasingly exciting ways.
The Artful Dodger premieres on 29 November on Disney+ in Australia and on Hulu in the US.