Thursday, January 8, 2015

Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist; drama, UK, 1948; D: David Lean, S: John Howard Davies, Robert Newton, Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh

England, 19th Century. Oliver Twist is an orphan whose mother died after birth. He lives in an orphanage led by beadle Mr. Bumble, who uses the kids as cheap labor in a workhouse. He sells Oliver for five pounds to be an apprentice for undertaker Sowerberry. After another apprentice makes fun of his mother, Oliver attacks him and is punished. Oliver thus flees to London where he is taken by Fagin, a professional pickpocket who trains kids like Dodger to steal from people on the street. Oliver is caught and arrested, but the man whom he tried to rob, Mr. Bownlow, takes pity on him and adopts him. It turns out Oliver is actually his lost grandchild. He is kidnapped by Fagin's accomplice Sikes, but the police storm their hideout and free him.

After a great success with his film adaptation "Great Expectations", director David Lean was assigned to adapt another Charles Dickens' classic novel, "Oliver Twist", and this 7th film adaptation is often mentioned as being among the best ones, if not the best. While not on the same level as Lean's best films, such as "Lawrence of Arabia" or "Doctor Zhivago", "Oliver Twist" is a thoroughbred example of good 'old school' filmmaking where the focus is entirely on a clear narrative and characters, without too much meddling with special effects or cheap attention grabbers. While some sequences could have been directed better - for instance, the crucial scene in the novel, where Oliver asks the supervisor of the orphan workhouse to have another bowl of soup, is very scarce and seems almost 'abridged' in the film - the movie is overall handled with exquisite care for details (malnourished orphan children fascinatingly observing the adult supervisors having a real feast on the table; Sikes' hallucination after the murder...), finely balancing between the two poles: shortening the huge novel for the film medium and yet staying faithful to its core. Lean simply knows how to make a film, and a subtle shift towards the epic is felt, which will culminate with his already mentioned classics from the 60s. The cast completes the impression, and Lean's favorite collaborator Alec Guinness is once again brilliant, this time in the role of the villainous Fagin, almost unrecognizable behind that make-up that mirrors the poverty of street children and their shady mentors.


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