BRIT PICK: Oliver Twist (1948)

Oliver Twist (UK, 1948)
Directed by David Lean
Starring John Howard Davies, Alec Guinness, Robert Newton, Kay Walsh 

BFI Top 100: #46 (1999)

Charles Dickens as a storyteller is inherently episodic. Having cut his teeth as a journalist and shorthand writer, he carried over this approach into his works of fiction, which was itself consolidated by their serialisation in newspapers. Throughout his novels Dickens tells his stories like a journalist, having a great eye for human behaviour and social injustice. He paints a vivid introductory picture of a character, including the elaborately grotesque name, and then introduces other aspects in small episodes or bites of information until the story has run its course.
This means that while there are many fine TV adaptations of Dickens (including the brilliant version of Bleak House from 2005), there are very few big-screen Dickens adaptations that can truly be considered cinematic. Carol Reed's Oscar-winning musical features in this happy few, as do several versions of A Christmas Carol, but perhaps no director has come closer to making Dickens cinematic than David Lean. 65 years on, his version of Oliver Twist remains both interesting and impressive, particularly in its narrative and visual decisions.
Having already enjoyed success with Great Expectations, it makes sense that Lean retained much of the same cast and crew for this adaptation. Ronald Neame returns as producer, having worked with Lean previously on Brief Encounter, as does cinematographer Guy Green following his Oscar win for Great Expectations. But more than that, the opening of Oliver Twist is a very conscious attempt on Lean's part to recapture that success. The very first shot, of Oliver's mother stumbling down the long desolate road, has the same cruel, intimidating atmosphere that characterised its predecessor.
The visuals of Oliver Twist are an intriguing mix of naturalism and expressionism. The more affluent parts of London, such as Oliver's eventual home, are rendered naturalistically with fine period details such as chess boards, book cases and marble columns. The poorer parts, however, look like one of Franz Kafka's nightmares, with the East End skyline made up of buildings which lean and reach in strange directions.
Lean uses this juxtaposition to convey with great subtlety the big ideas and images of the book. There is a recurring image in the film of hands reaching out towards something better: Oliver holding his bowl, the pickpockets looking for wallets, Nancy's lifeless hand after Sikes beats her, and so on. Even the slums, particularly on the scenes on the rooftop bridge, seem to lean and reach in vain towards the wealth and opulence of St. Paul's Cathedral. Through these images Lean paints a picture of a city founded on a desperate desire to escape, telling the story through architecture in a manner that would have made Fritz Lang proud.
The film also brilliantly utilises different ratios of darkness and light - or chiaroscuro, to use the artistic term. Shadows are a common device in horror and thrillers to indicate the darkness of a character or a threat that faces them, but Lean uses them slightly differently: rather than the darkness encroaching on the characters, he conceives of a world where the characters have painted themselves into a corner and shut the light out. Sikes' room has curtains which selectively let light through after he has murdered Nancy, and the shadow that Nancy's hand casts on the floor is foreshadowed by the lone leaf on the tree in one of the opening shots.
The film is also notable for its approach to violence. The beating of Nancy is a deeply traumatic moment in the novel, with Dickens often struggling to get through it during his public readings. Much like Carol Reed's version from the 1960s, most of the violence in Lean's film is suggested, with the audience being asked to fill in the blanks from Nancy's screams, her limp hand and Robert Newton's facial expressions. It's a very effective decision, reflective of social attitudes at the time but also in keeping with the overall tone of Lean's story, where pain and hardship are suggested so strongly that candid depiction is unnecessary.
As a visual piece of storytelling, Oliver Twist comes through with flying colours (or lack thereof). But despite Lean's best efforts, he does not entirely overcome the episodic quality of the narrative, in which characters disappear for long periods, often without explanation. Rather than fill in the blanks with supplementary material, as Peter Jackson has attempted with The Hobbit, Lean is using as a reference an abridged version of the text created by Alec Guinness for the stage. One of the biggest problems he has is that his title character is not always his main protagonist: sometimes the story is more interested in Fagin, or Sikes, or Nancy, or the two rich gentlemen.
To get around this, the film is ruthlessly edited by Lean and Jack Harris. Lean first made his name as an editor, creating the famous elocution montage in Pygmalion, and he always held the art in the highest regard - so much so that on his final film, A Passage to India, he was credited as "Directed and Edited by David Lean". While he allows his actors room to explore and perform in a manner which is occasionally theatrical, he reins them in through frequent cuts. His coverage is exemplary for the period and he succeeds in trimming a lot of the fat from Dickens' story.
Lean's editing is so ruthless, indeed, that he occasionally goes too far, partially undermining emotional developments in the novel and making certain sections feel a little too contrived. Nancy's involvement in the discovery of Oliver's identity is shoved to the centre for a large part of the story, so that the film threatens to drift into a half-cocked mystery when grim drama is its biggest strength. Choices like this don't entirely derail the film, but they do detract from the atmosphere that Lean has created, by exposing how the individual threads in Dickens' stories don't always stand up so well on their own.
There are a number of other issues with the film, many of which relate to the context in which it was created. The first and biggest of these is the anti-Semitic depiction of Fagin, as portrayed by Guinness. Dickens was surprised by the outrage that greeted the character, writing that he had no personal ill will towards Jews and removing many references to Fagin as "the Jew" from later editions of the novel. He gave a rather poor defence of the characterisation, however, saying that that he was merely depicting an unfortunate real-world prejudice rather than taking a moral stance on it - a defence which does not gel with the biting criticism of poverty and social ills throughout his novels.
It is therefore somewhat inevitable that any depiction of Fagin could be branded anti-Semitic even before the actor in question has opened his mouth. But Guinness doesn't do himself any favours here, wearing a large prosthetic nose (with Lean's approval) to more closely resemble George Cruikshank's original illustrations. It's an outrageous and cartoonish depiction even for the day, and while Guinness is still capable in the role there is too much to distract us from the character to make it work. Certainly it's no surprise that the film caused outrage in Berlin, and that it was severely cut for screenings in the USA.
Neither does the film do itself any favours with its gender politics. I spoke in my review of Cinderella of the regression in attitudes to women following World War II, with the women whose defiance of gender roles helped to win the war being expected to go back to the kitchen and bedroom as if nothing had ever happened. In this case, women are depicted in one of two massively limiting ways: either as the comedy battleaxe, in the case of Mrs. Bumble, or the hysterical, vulnerable mother figure, such as Nancy.
Even with its problems, however, Oliver Twist is worth watching for the performances (disregarding Guinness). John Howard Davies, who went on to commission Fawlty Towers, does a very good job in the lead role, resisting the urge to over-egg the angelic aspects of the character. Robert Newton's performance isn't quite as purely intimidating as Oliver Reed's (indeed much of it feels like Dudley Moore was in the role) but he still comes through in the moments that matter. Watch out also for brief appearances in the pub scenes by Carry On's Hattie Jacques and Peter Bull, best known as the Russian ambassador in Dr. Strangelove.
Oliver Twist remains a very good and admirable cinematic achievement in spite of all its flaws. While it fails to solve the problems relating to Fagin and has a number of unfortunate shortcomings in its storytelling, it remains a visually striking piece which succeeds by and large in putting Dickens on the big screen. For people both familiar with the musical and those coming to the story for the first time, it remains highly recommended.


Oliver Twist features in my recent article for WhatCulture! on Dickens adaptations, which you can read in full here.

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