January 08, 2009
Oliver Twist (1948)
After having begun his career as a director by the hand of writer Noel Coward (adapting three of Coward's plays into successful films), British filmmaker David Lean moved to a classic author of English literature for his next project: Charles Dickens. The novel chosen for his next film was "Great Expectations" and, released in 1946, the movie became a great success, and soon began to be celebrated as one of the best film versions of a Dickens novel. Still, it wouldn't be the only time David Lean would tackle a work by the popular writer, as two years later Lean re-assembled his team and produced a new adaptation of one of Dickens' most popular books: "The Adventures of Oliver Twist". It wasn't the first time "Oliver Twist" had been taken to the big screen, as in fact it had been adapted several times since the early days of cinema; however, since the arrival of sound only one adaptation had been made (in 1933), but it was a forgettable mediocre film, leaving "Oliver Twist" without a proper adaptation. David Lean's film would change that forever.
During one stormy night in Victorian England, an unknown pregnant woman arrives to a parish workhouse. There, the woman gives birth to a boy, but dies moments later, leaving the child a orphan and under the care of the Poor Law. The boy grows up and is named Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies), and on his ninth birthday, he is taken to work at the workhouse like the rest of the children. Living in starvation, the kids chose one of them to ask for more food, and luck puts that task on Oliver's shoulders. The boy's petition causes an uproar, and it's decided to offer Oliver as an apprentice. Mr. Sowerberry (Gibb McLaughlin), an undertaker, decides to take Oliver with him, and for a moment the future looks bright for the young boy. Unfortunately, the jealousy of Mr. Sowerberry's other apprentice, Noah Claypole (Michael Dear), gets him in trouble and forces him to move to London. In the big city, Oliver will join a group of juvenile delinquents lead by an old man called Fagin (Alec Guiness), discover the dark side of London as well as the truth about his past.
Adapted to the screen by Stanley Haynes and David Lean himself, this version of "Oliver Twist" is considerably darker than the previous ones, following the novel's spirit by putting more emphasis on the grim reality of Oliver's life than on the comedy (although it does keep Dickens' humor) or the tenderness of the title character. In fact, Oliver is made less cute, less sweet, still a tragic victim, but a more realistic one. Unlike previous interpretations, this Oliver could be every working, vagabond child; because even when Lean keeps the Oliver's natural nobility and his secret the main plot of the story, the darkness of London streets and its inhabitants seem to be the focal point of the story, as a great deal of character development is done with them. While a relatively faithful version of the novel, it takes more liberties than previous versions, mainly in the omission or reduction of certain subplots and characters, although this was probably done to put more attention to the "main set" of characters in "Oliver Twist".
Now, where the film shines is without a doubt in the amazing way Lean brings to life Dickens popular story. Using the remarkably beautiful work of cinematography done by Guy Green, Lean creates a powerful, haunting vision of Victorian London that, while being a highly stylish mix of grim film Noir and nightmarish expressionism, it still makes a wonderful portrayal of the novel's world. This may sound like a contradiction, but it works: against all odds, the exaggerated, Gothic darkness of Lean's London makes a perfect combination with the novel's grim realism and the city's urban decadence. Taking care of every detail, and giving inventive uses to the camera, Lean and Green make of every scene, of every image a work of art, possessing a beauty that's almost supernatural. Certainly, set designers T. Hopewell Ash and Claude Momsay also deserve recognition for their excellent work. But even when the visual beauty of the film is already a testament of Lean's skill, his work with the cast is also commendable, as he brings memorable performances from most of them.
The son of writer Jack Davies, young John Howard Davies was a newcomer to cinema when he was casted as Oliver, and brought a natural charm and naiveté to his performance as the little orphan. As Fagin, Alec Guiness appears in one of his most celebrated and hotly debated roles. Guiness creates a very interesting villain, whom is at times jovial and cheerful with "his children" but who can also be ruthless and cruel. Perfectly embodying his character, Guiness delivers a masterful performance, although at times his Fagin feels a tad clichéd. As the imposing Bill Sikes, Robert Newton is simply amazing, as he makes a complex character out of a role that tends to be downplayed as a tough brute. Specially in the last third, Newton truly makes Sikes' emotions to shine through his eyes. Same could be said of Kay Walsh (Lean's wife at the time), whom despite being a bit old for her role, is remarkable as Nancy and makes the perfect counterpart to Newton's villain. A young Anthony Newley appears as the Artful Dodger, marking the beginning of the actor's bright career with a great performance.
Personally, I tend to agree with the general consensus of this being "the definitive version" of Dickens' novel in the sense that, while it has taken great liberties with the source novel, it's the one that remains the most loyal to its spirit. One interesting, and notorious thing about Lean's "Oliver Twist" is that while other versions cast the title role with cuteness, sweetness or innocence in mind, in Lean's film John Howard Davies looks, if anything, melancholic. An overwhelming melancholy that hides more than what it tells is the trademark of Lean's Oliver, and that melancholy extends to the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the film found problems with distribution, as some had problems with Alec Guiness' performance as Fagin, which was seen as antisemitic. I think that the problem was that, while it's a terrific performance, at times it feels too much like a caricature, which some have interpreted as antisemitic due to its uses of stereotypes. Personally, I don't find it offensive in any way, but it does feel a bit stereotypical at times.
While he's certainly better known for his work in some of Hollywood's most amazing epic films (such as "The Bridge on the River Kwai", "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago"), the early British films by David Lean are already proof of his great talent as a director. 1948's version of "Oliver Twist" is one of the better examples, as it's a film that by using a well-known story, creates one of the most beautiful works of art done in black and white photography. Haunting, dark, and wonderfully atmospheric, this version of "Oliver Twist" is, like Lean's "Great Expectations", one of the best adaptations of Dickens ever done. Comparing this film to the previous sound version, one not only notices how much had the art of cinema advanced in 15 years, but also how a film can change when it's a talented eye what's behind the camera.