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Friday 20 April 2007

Oliver Twist (1948) David Lean

Reading arguments about Alec Guinness's greatest film, or even his greatest performance, are unintentiously hilarious, even beyond the seemingly obligatory sideswipes about Obi Wan Kenobi. Nobody can agree on anything, it seems, and there are just too many great roles to choose from. However his perfomance here as Fagin was so impressively dynamic (and stereotypical) that it led to a three year delay Stateside because of anti-Semitic connotations. Here he's partnered with director David Lean who produces some of the most powerful imagery ever seen on film, through the use of cinematic arts like composition, contrast and lighting. Lean is known for his grand epics but he must have been paying attention to quieter silent era pictures to learn how to make films like this.

The opening is stunning. All we're really watching is a young girl trying to get back to the parish workhouse, but what we see is the power of cinematic art. The storm roils, empty branches beckon and the lightning sets the stream alight. Even the clouds recede with menace and set the scene for the entry into the world of Oliver Twist. Fast forward nine years and there's just as much menace in his life. Some of his fellow orphans in the workhouse look more like concentration camp victims and to counter his famed audacity for asking for more, he's apprenticed off to an undertaker, Abel Sowerberry.

Unfortunately his effeminate and melancholy looks make him a perfect mute to walk behind the funeral carriage and that brings resentment from Noah Claypole, an apprentice above him in the scheme of things. However, there's something about him that both he and we don't know, and there's certainly strength in him that others don't see so he escapes and finds his way to the bustling metropolis of London, to meet up with the Artful Dodger and be introduced to the criminal schemes of Fagin and Bill Sikes.

There are quite a few actors in this film who I know well but would have completely failed to recognise without the ability to look them up in IMDb. Diana Dors, the buxom Marilyn wannabe from no end of 'oo 'er, missus' movies from the seventies, is unrecognisable to me in black and white, let alone at the age she is as a maid at the undertaker's. There's also Carry On veteran Hattie Jacques singing away at the Three Cripples inn, a very young Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger, Hammer mainstay Michael Ripper and others. Even Alec Guinness isn't particularly recognisable under the heavy makeup though his voice gives him away on occasion.

He is absolutely superb here, stereotypical or not, and he's the quintessential Fagin, just as young John Howard Davies is the quintessential Oliver. Robert Newton is superb as Bill Sikes, Anthony Newley is an excellent Artful Dodger; and Henry Stephenson, about the only actor who is recognisable here to me, is quietly powerful amongst such company as one of the few characters with goodness in his heart. He looks Victorian, pure and simple, and has the beneficent face to carry the character.

The only catch to the film is the story. I've never been the biggest fan of Charles Dickens, while reserving a heavy respect for his accomplishments in exposing the dark side of Victorian life, and thus haven't read many of his books. I haven't read Oliver Twist, for instance, and so can't speak to how well translated this was to the screen, but I felt that there were a lot of interesting characters here that were glossed over in favour of Oliver himself who really isn't that complex at all. He's just not that interesting, much more someone who things happen to than someone who makes things happen. He's almost a MacGuffin. I'd like to have heard much more about Nancy or the Artful Dodger for instance. Maybe I'd get that from the book but I didn't get it here and it really affects the film to my eyes. What David Lean did is astounding and the actors helped him to achieve that, but still I wasn't enthralled. I wasn't bored either but I certainly wasn't enthralled.

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