Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist (1948) movie poster

(1948) dir. David Lean
viewed: 08/07/09

There are many Oliver Twists out there.  Most notable of which no doubt should be the originary text by Charles Dickens.  But this version is a fairly significant if not definitive filmic version, directed by one of the greatest British filmmakers, David Lean.

My familiarity with both Dickens and this text is only moderate.  I’ve only read two Dickens novels, Our Mutual Friend and more recently Bleak House.  So, I’m no expert, but I’ve studied a bit and am not utterly ignorant regarding Dickens.  But I’d never seen this film version, wasn’t even familiar enough with the text to know the exact story, but thought it might be an interesting one to watch with the kids, since I’ve been reading children’s classics to them with varying success.  I’d perused Oliver Twist in this regard, but deemed the language too hard for them, so I thought, the film version…that might work!  My kids are fairly schooled in cinema, watching silent films as well as modern films, are used to “black and white” in ways that most modern generations are not, but this was still quite an experiment.  It went pretty well.

The film starts with a striking sequence, with the heavily pregnant mother of Oliver crossing the countryside and ending up in a workhouse.  Dramatic rainstorms, thorns, and creeping branches put it right into gothic horror territory.  I’ve read that the art design is considered noirish and it’s stark and dramatic.  The cinematography is terrific.  I mean, we are talking David Lean here (Brief Encounter (1945), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and his wonderful Lawrence of Arabia (1962)).  The man was no cinematic hack.

And the cast is terrific, John Howard Davies is iconic as the orphan Oliver Twist, and the troupe of actors are from a totally different generation, one in which you see them entirely as their characters, embedded in the story.  That is, save Alec Guiness, who can be so great.  His role as Fagin is quite horrific in its way, though trying to be true to early illustrations of the character, in tune with the way Dickens had described him.  His look is more extreme than many a cartoon, a dated “Jew” look, with a hooked nose, scraggly beard, and an evil nature.

To approach it now, it’s a reeking stereotype.  And it’s not as easy to laugh it off for being “of it’s time”.  It was 1948, post-WWII, post-Holocaust.  And though its as somewhat “classic” character from a popular writer of the prior century, you just can’t make yourself entirely comfortable with it, though I am not sure that he’s actually referred to in the film as being Jewish, and apparently is to a great extent in the original text.

It’s not to say this off-putting aspect ruins the film, it just adds a distasteful wrinkle in what is otherwise a wonderful elaboration on the story with great adventure, danger, and mystery.  Dickens was indeed a wonderful creator of story and Lean was a wonderful creator of films.  It’s overall a terrifically good film.

Felix was really rapt by the story and got more interested as it moved on.  Clara started involved, drifted away and then came back at the end.  It’s probably an age thing, but perhaps a taste thing too.  Next time, something a little easier for everyone.

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