Was Isaac "Ikey" Solomon the inspiration for the reviled villain Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist? The entertaining docudrama The First Fagin makes a compelling case that Dickens did borrow large chunks of Ikey’s life for his celebrated novel.
In their screen debuts, Goddard and McLean are impressive as the leads.
Writers-directors Alan Rosenthal and Helen Gaynor skilfully use a blend of dramatic re-enactments, paintings, drawings and commentary from historians to tell the story of the colourful 19th character.
It’s clear the filmmakers believe Ikey got a bad rap from Dickens. Far from the character portrayed in the novel as a grotesque-looking miser who exploited children, Solomon is depicted as a hard-working, devoted husband and father. True, like Fagin, he made a lucrative living as a fence, a receiver of stolen goods, but millions of people in Victorian England were forced to steal to make ends meet.
Based on Australian author Judith Sackville-O'Donnell’s 2002 book The First Fagin: The True Story of Ikey Solomon, the narrative shows how Solomon (Ryk Goddard), the son of Jewish immigrants from Bavaria, took up petty thieving to support his wife Ann (Carrie McLean) and their growing brood; eventually they had six children.
His luck ran out when he was caught red-handed and sentenced to six years in jail, sequestered in one of the 'hulks,’ decommissioned war ships that were used as floating prisons. Upon his release, he built up a thriving business dealing in stolen goods, a fair and decent man whose credo was, 'No haggling, everything above board."
He was arrested again for burglary, a hanging offence, but escaped during a trip from Newgate jail to court for a bail hearing, and fled to New York. In the process he acquired folk-hero status, billed in the popular press as a 'robbing hood."
Unscrupulous cops forced Ikey’s brother to frame Ann for theft. She was convicted and along with her kids transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), put to work as a maid where she was cruelly treated, while three of the children were sent to an orphanage.
Eventually Solomon made his way to Hobart to reunite with his wife and family, believing he was safely out of reach of British law. Wrong, as it turned out, as the zealous Calvinist Governor Sir George Arthur (Guy Hooper) was determined to put him behind bars by any means possible.
In their screen debuts, Goddard and McLean are impressive as the leads. Goddard, an ABC radio presenter in Hobart, draws on his experience acting in plays for the Tasmanian Theatre Company and Terrapin Theatre and as a stand-up comic. The technique of having him talk direct to camera at times seems awkward but he eloquently conveys the sense of a passionate, upstanding fellow who did all he could to support his family.
Based in Launceston, McLean is an accomplished stage actress, writer and director. She portrays Ann as a loyal woman who stoically endures her husband’s long spells of incarceration. One scene late in the piece when their marriage undergoes extreme stress and long-suppressed emotions erupt is superbly acted, and the aftermath is quite moving.
Both actors nail their East London accents and, helped by hair and make-up, their characters age convincingly. The supporting cast members, all recruited in Tasmania, are similarly at ease playing English judges, cops, barristers and the like.
Working within the constraints of a small budget, most of the scenes take place in courtrooms, prison cells and the Solomons’ dwellings, but the filmmakers also make effective use of locations such Port Arthur and Richmond Jail.
The narration by Miriam Margolyes (of TV’s Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, who starred in her own one-woman Dickens stage show) is clear and concise and Guy Gross’ score is a delightful accompaniment.