The Big Picture
- Hulu’s historical drama The Artful Dodger offers a delightful twist on a familiar character with a stellar cast and surprising story. It’s one of the best shows to debut on the streamer this year.
- David Thewlis delivers a phenomenal performance as Fagin, bringing a softer side to the character while still maintaining his villainous appeal. His chemistry with Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s Jack Dawkins is captivating.
- The series presents high stakes for Jack, with a web of thievery, deception, and blackmail that threatens his career and introduces him to a contentious workplace. It cleverly blends elements of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and The Alienist.
Hulu’s newest historical drama, The Artful Dodger, delivers a wholly delightful and unexpected twist on the life of a familiar literary character. With its stellar cast, sumptuous costumes, plucky score, and surprising story, the series is easily one of the best—and most refreshing—to debut on the streamer this year. Rather than adapting yet another Charles Dickens classic, as they recently did with Great Expectations, The Artful Dodger reimagines the continued adventures of the eponymous Dodger as a young adult. Now known by the name Jack Dawkins (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the former petty thief has carved out a new life for himself as a respected surgeon in the British Colony of Australia, but his days of respectability might just come to an end when a familiar face arrives with the latest batch of convicts from England.
The Artful Dodger
- Release Date
- November 29, 2023
- Thomas Brodie-Sangster, David Thewlis, Maia Mitchell, Damon Herriman
- Main Genre
- Drama, Crime, History
- James McNamara, David Maher, David Taylor
David Thewlis Makes For a Phenomenal Fagin in ‘The Artful Dodger’
Since his turn as the beloved academic lycanthrope in the franchise that must not be mentioned, David Thewlis has made something of a habit out of playing villains. Notably, Ares in Wonder Woman, Grail in Enola Holmes 2, and most recently John Dee in The Sandman. The Artful Dodger allows him to bring to life yet another villain—but, as with everything in the series, there’s a twist. Years removed from the events of Oliver Twist, Thewlis’ Fagin is softer around the edges than the literary antagonist who kidnapped children and turned them into little thieves for his criminal enterprise.
Thewlis’ greatest tool in his villainous performances has always been his ability to lure audiences into a false sense of security. He draws you in with his affable appeal, which always makes his turn to malice that much more fascinating to watch. With Fagin, he doles out the congeniality and leans into the fragility of the character, while never fully convincing the audience that this isn’t still the same man who raised up the villainous Bill Sikes. The way Thewlis toes the line of Fagin’s morally dubious existence makes for a captivating performance, and he has met his match in the seasoned performance of Brodie-Sangster.
While Jack is quick to deny any kinship he might share with Fagin, Fagin’s paternalistic instincts are quite evident throughout the first four episodes of the series. There’s a genuine fondness there, even if it’s often masked behind Fagin’s Machiavellian schemes, and it’s not as though Jack isn’t also using his former mentor. Without Fagin’s clandestine arrival, Jack’s career as a surgeon might’ve been on the chopping block.
What Is at Stake for Jack Dawkins in ‘The Artful Dodger?’
With each new episode, the stakes continue to grow more dire for Jack. What starts as an impossible situation connected to gambling debts becomes a tangled web of thievery, deception, and a little light blackmail. And caught in their web is the governor’s daughter Lady Belle Fox (Maia Mitchell) who spends her days reading up on the latest medical advancements and dreaming of becoming a surgeon. While Jack is measured in his methods, thanks to his military experience and place of employment, Belle is ready to seize upon any opportunity she has to try out everything she has read about—mostly to the benefit of their patients. Of course, medicine in the 1850s was a form of gambling in and of itself.
In addition to trying to maintain the balance of his duplicitous existence, Jack also has to contend with a fairly contentious workplace. The head doctor is a bumbling drunk who doesn’t care whether his patients live or die, and more often than not it’s the latter. With Belle arriving to offer existence, though not in an official capacity, Jack is forced to get creative in how he circumvents the doctor. It adds to the fun of the series for it to not just be a linear story about Jack trying to get out of trouble. There are subplots along the way that see them trying to solve mysterious illnesses, experimenting with new medical practices, and even grave robbing—which happens to be an age-old medical practice.
While Jack tries to keep himself gainfully employed, Fagin is mucking about town trying to steal enough jewels and money. This includes trying to pawn faux ancient relics to the local Catholic Church, which is hands down one of the most unintentionally hilarious scenes of the year. However, perhaps my extensive knowledge of the peddling of bits of bones and ancient relics contemporaneous with the period when The Artful Dodger is set made the scene stand out to me.
How Does ‘The Artful Dodger’ Compare to ‘Oliver Twist?’
The first four episodes of the eight-part series feel like a charming mix of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes hijinks—complete with a score from Antony Partos that has those same plucky strings and jovial beats—and The Alienist’s cutting-edge scientific notions. At first glance, picturing Dodger as a respected surgeon is quite difficult to conceptualize, and yet the story spun by James McNamara, Andrew Knight, Vivienne Walshe, and Dan Knight arrives as a neat and clever continuation of Charles Dicken’s classic.
The Artful Dodger’s overarching plot seeks to parallel the key themes of Oliver Twist in subtle ways. In the same way that Dickens’ novel is about how one’s identity as a “good person” can be marred by the inescapable societal structures meant to keep the lower class downtrodden, Jack Dawkin’s life has taken a similar path. After escaping prison, he joined the military and rose through the ranks to become a surgeon, which led him to practice medicine in Australia—but it’s a life path that still forces him to gamble his way in and out of money. Even though he has reinvented himself, all it took was Fagin arriving Down Under to threaten everything he’s built for himself in the years since he parted ways with Oliver Twist.
One might even argue that The Artful Dodger toys with an idea that Dickens loved to employ: the compulsion to repeat. While it isn’t as neatly showcased as it was in Great Expectations, the series does set Jack up to walk in Fagin’s footsteps. Where Fagin snatched up the boy as a baby and shaped him into a thief, with little control over his existence, Jack plucks Fagin out of the line-up of convicts and relies upon him to steal. Fagin may have no qualms about thievery, but he also has very little agency over his fate. In both the past and the present, Jack and Fagin have fulfilled the same roles in each other’s lives. No matter how far Jack attempts to run from his past, he is still doomed to become who Fagin raised him to be.
The series handles women far better than Dickens ever did in his novels, but there are still fragments of his archetypes built into each of the women in Jack’s world. Lady Belle Fox is an accomplished young woman with a passion for medicine that rivals even Jack’s professional skill, but she is limited in what she can do because of her gender, her social standing as the governor’s daughter, and her mysterious illness. She is far removed from the idea of an “angel of the hearth,” and that might be her fatal flaw. She is an outspoken woman, who could very easily be cut down by several things, should the series take a dark turn in its back half. Her sister Lady Fanny Fox (Lucy-Rose Leonard) stands in sharp contrast to Belle. She is simpering and well-mannered, and desperate to be married—if only her sister would take the plunge first. Her role largely seems to exist to show what an outlier Belle is.
Captain Gaines (Damon Herriman) is a perfectly crafted Dickensian character as well. He is a driven military man, who is completely blinded by his ambitions. He is oblivious to the fact that his wife is cheating on him right under his nose, and a laughably bad detective when he starts sniffing around Jack and Fagin’s business.
Should You Watch ‘The Artful Dodger?’
With The Artful Dodger arriving at the height of the holiday season, there’s a real chance people might miss it in their rush to see if their favorite holiday rom-com is streaming on Hulu, but it is absolutely worth setting aside the time each week to watch it when it drops.
The eternally baby-faced Thomas Brodie-Sangster is such an endearing lead, and the script gives him so much to work with as an underdog you want to root for. Paired with his excellent chemistry with Maia Mitchell and her own independent storyline, the first four episodes set the stage for a tantalizing plot that could spell disaster if they tread along a more Dickensian path. The twists and turns that the story takes keep everyone on edge, delivering satisfying episodes each step of the way. The Artful Dodger is a must-watch for anyone who loves Dickens, historical dramas, and a stomach for the woefully horrific surgical practices of yesteryear.
The Artful Dodger is available to stream on Hulu in the U.S. starting November 29.
WATCH ON HULU
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