Classic Movie Reviews

Classic Review: Oliver Twist (1948)

The perfect gothic representation of Charles Dickens’ world.

Synopsis: An orphan named Oliver Twist meets a pickpocket on the streets of London. From there, he joins a household of boys who are trained to steal for their master. (IMDB)

Starring: Robert Newton, Alec Guiness, and Kay Walsh

Writers: David Lean and Stanley Haynes

Director: David Lean

Rating: G (Canada)

Running Time: 116mins

Trailer:

Based on the classic novel by Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies) is an orphan who suffers more than one should be allowed to. He runs away from the workhouse he’s in and end up meeting the Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley), a pickpocket who takes Oliver to his household of young kids who are trained to steal for their master, Fagin (Guiness). Once there, Oliver meets the menacing Bill Sykes (Newton) and the kind Nancy (Walsh) and goes on to steal with the rest of the kids, until he is rescued by a kind gentleman who takes him into his house.

Lean was a master, one of the great directors of all times. We all remember him for his later huge epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago but he started with very small, intimate films like In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter (a true masterpiece). Right after he had his Dickens phase, first with Great Expectations and then Oliver Twist. It’s interesting to see that he went full German Expressionism in both films, which is great since Dickens’ tales are the perfect match for the style. The gothic enhances the feel of this story perfectly.

Twist has an interesting mix of innocence and toughness. He is a good kid at heart and he suffers a great amount of horrible situations. He’s exploited in the beginning but some horrible people and he needs to toughen up when he gets to London. Fagin is a horrible man but nothing that compares to the danger represented by Sykes, a truly terrible person. In the same way, Oliver bonds with the other kids and you can still find goodness in all of those ugly surroundings. Nancy cares about those kids, more than anyone else.  But it’s kind of a childish coincidence that when Oliver is rescued by a benefactor, that same man end up being his grandfather. It’s not a huge problem since Oliver Twist is a children’s tale, a good versus evil story, but it is a little bit funny when such a coincidence happens all of the sudden.

There is one element here that doesn’t work at all: after Oliver goes to live with his benefactor (without knowing he is actually his grandparent), Nancy sees Oliver waking down the street and brings him back to Fagin’s lair. But right in the next scene she already regrets doing so and wants to save Oliver from Fagin and Sykes evildoings. That doesn’t make any sense; she knows very well who both of those men truly are and there is no change in their behavior whatsoever to make her “finally” sees she has done wrong by Oliver. Everything is just the same as always so her change of mind sounds very weird, very abrupt. Not having read the book, it seems like these changes take longer to happen; but in here, it just looks very random. But it is a minor mistake in such a great adaptation.

The actors fully embody the light, grey and dark natures of their characters; Davies looks innocent and does a fine job as Oliver; Walsh and Newley do great turning the Artful Dodger and Nancy into complex characters, they do bad things but they have a conscience and we see that struggle during the entire film. However, the two standouts here are the gothic characters. Newton is scary as hell as Bill Sykes; he is frightening and you can sense his instability just by looking at him. Guiness is the perfect Fagin; he is horrible and disgusting, but he also manages to make Fagin sound seducing in some scenes. Fagin is a survivor, after all.

In the end, this version of Oliver Twist is a beautiful film to look at: Lean’s direction and craft with the compositions, the editing and lighting are a master act. A great film.

Score: 8/10

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