This is my entry for my David Lean blogathon being held next Friday and Saturday. I can’t wait to read all of your entries. There is still time to sign up and join the fun if you haven’t already done so.
For this blogathon I have decided to write about Oliver Twist. This is a film that I consider to be David Lean’s best directorial effort after Lawrence Of Arabia. Everything about this film is stunning. You can really see David Lean’s attention to the smallest of details in every single shot in this film.
I don’t use the word masterpiece very often, but I think that this film undoubtedly qualifies as being one. The film is very dark and bleak and Lean sensibly doesn’t shy away from showing us just how brutal and terrible the time period the film is set in was. Despite its immense level of bleakness, there are however some wonderful moments of humour to be found in this film. There are also some terrific Dickensian character names to enjoy.
David Lean is my favourite British film director. He was a master of his craft and I like that he put such care and attention into even the smallest details and scenes appearing in his films. If I ever had to list a handful of directors who I consider to be the greatest to have ever worked, then David Lean would be right near the top.
I like David Lean so much because he was able to perfectly balance intimate human stories, against epic and visually stunning backdrops. In Lean’s films the characters always come first and he doesn’t rely on effects or use intrusive editing.
David Lean made many fine films in his career. Some of his best work was completed in the 1940’s. In this decade he made two films which were adaptations of Charles Dickens novels; the first film was Great Expectations(1946), and the other was Oliver Twist(1948). Lean was able to recreate the Victorian era so well in both of these films.
I love how in Oliver Twist, Lean manages to capture the great hardships faced by the poor and working classes in Victorian era Britain. This film perfectly captures the grime, the poverty and the outright misery of the time. It also conveys to us the gaping class divide of the time; with the poor starving and living in utter squalor, while the rich ignore their plight and gorge themselves on delicious food and live in luxury.
Hungry boys watch the workhouse staff eating. Screenshot by me.
This gaping divide and lifestyle of the different classes is perfectly captured in a scene at the workhouse. Some of the boys are watching the staff of the workhouse tuck into a huge roast dinner. Those who live in the workhouse only get a small bowl of gruel and a piece of bread each day.
If the poor steal to enable them to get food they are severely punished and looked down upon by the rich and by the law. No matter what they did, the poor living in this era just couldn’t get a break. Dickens novel and this film give a face to poverty, to suffering and to injustice.
I think it was a genius idea for Dickens to make Oliver a child. Even though the story is set in a time when children tended to grow up psychologically more quickly than they do now, the amount of horrible and unjust things Oliver endures make the reader and viewer angry about these things happening to Oliver.
As readers, Dickens makes us fear for Oliver and become protective of him as the story goes along. In turn this then makes us think about the real children who lived this life during the Victorian era. Oliver may well be a fictional character, but he represents all the real children of this time who lived in poverty, who were forced into child labour, and who often died long before their time of disease or injury. David Lean’s film manages to have the same effect on the viewer in my opinion.
I consider this film to be the best adaptation of Oliver Twist that has ever been made. It is so good precisely because it makes you feel that you are there in that miserable time period suffering right alongside Oliver.
David Lean also makes sure his film sticks very closely to the book, and while it doesn’t manage to capture everything found in the book, it certainly does a better job of it than most other adaptations have managed to do. My only big issue with this film is that I don’t think that the character of Nancy is given as much screen time as in other adaptations, but Kay Walsh who plays her does her best to make Nancy’s appearances memorable. Kay also conveys Nancy’s strength and determination quite well.
I also love this film so much because it contains some of the most striking and unforgettable images in film history. Many of David Lean’s films contain such moments, but in this film, almost every single shot is like a work of art and so many of the scenes are hard to forget. The cinematography in this film is by Guy Green, who had won an Oscar for his work in Lean’s Great Expectations. Guy would later go on to become a film director himself; two of the most notable films that he directed are A Patch Of Blue and The Angry Silence. Guy worked wonders on the cinematography side of things on Oliver Twist.
The opening scene of this film is a total work of art. Oliver’s heavily pregnant mother is struggling across the rain swept moors at night to get to a workhouse. During her journey she goes into labour. Right away this scene shows us how difficult and harsh this time period is. Each time she gets a contraction the pain coincides with a flash of lighting, or with a thorny branch swaying and shaking in the fierce wind. These images of the storm and branches clearly symbolise the agony of her labour pains.
Part of the opening scene. Screenshot by me.
The lighting in this sequence is incredible throughout. The sequence ends with this woman collapsing at the workhouse gate and being brought inside to give birth. The camera then cuts outside to show us later that night, a time when clearly the storm has ended but it is still dark outside.
A cloud slowly moves across the sky and splits in two. When it does this it looks to me like a pair of open legs; the moon then slowly emerges from between the split cloud, and when it does so, we hear the cries of the woman’s baby as he emerges into the world. I love this moment so much because of how the cloud imagery symbolises Oliver’s birth.
Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies)is the baby who is born that night. His mother dies not long after she gives birth. Oliver is raised in the workhouse and endures a miserable life under the control of the pompous Mr. Bumble(played by a scene stealing Francis L. Sullivan), and the short tempered Matron (Mary Clare).
One day, after having had the cheek to ask for more food, Oliver is sold to a local undertaker to work in his shop.
After being treated appallingly there, young Oliver decides he has had enough of this life and so he runs away to London.
When he gets to London, he meets the skilled young pickpocket, The Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley). Dodger takes him to Fagin (Alec Guinness), an old thief who trains young boys in the art of theft, and gets them to bring him things they have stolen in return for a roof over their heads and food on the table.
Soon Oliver feels welcome and happy with this group. He quickly settles in and is accepted as one of the gang. On his first time out on a pickpocket job with Dodger, Oliver is wrongly accused of stealing a wallet. The wallet is actually taken by Dodger who manages to run away and not get caught.
The owner of the wallet is the kindly, wealthy gentleman, Mr. Brownlow(Henry Stephenson). He takes pity on Oliver and after a witness to the theft clears Oliver of any wrongdoing, Brownlow takes Oliver home and looks after him. For the first time in his life Oliver knows real love and kindness.
I’m sure most of you reading have seen this film or read the book, but if you haven’t done so, please turn back now because there are some major spoilers ahead!
Sadly Oliver’s new found happiness doesn’t last and he is kidnapped by Fagin’s dangerous associate, Bill Sykes(Robert Newton)and Bill’s kind-hearted, prostitute girlfriend, Nancy(Kay Walsh, who was married to David Lean at the time this film was made)due to them and Fagin being anxious that Oliver will give them all up to the Police.
Nancy is wracked with guilt over bringing Oliver back, and she bravely risks her own life to try and set Oliver free from this life of misery and crime. Nancy tries to get Oliver back to Mr. Brownlow and she pays for this with her life when she is discovered by Bill and he murders her.
The murder of Nancy is one of most powerful scenes in the whole film, and it manages to be horrific and chilling without us ever seeing the murder graphically depicted. The yelping and shaking dog trying frantically to escape the room as Nancy is murdered is unforgettable. The dogs noises are mixed together with Nancy’s screams, and combined together those noises make for a sound that chills you to the bone.
The aftermath of Nancy’s murder. Screenshot by me.
I like that Lean shows us Bill’s slowly dawning realisation to what he has just done. His eyes dart around the room when he realises he has killed Nancy. Bill’s eyes focus on Nancy’s possessions and land upon things that remind him of their shared life together, items such as their double bed and her dressing table. As he looks around the room we see that Bill is absolutely horrified at what he has gone and destroyed.
The great tragedy of the film is that while Bill was a violent and nasty piece of work, he genuinely loved Nancy and she loved him in return. When Bill kills her he also murders any possibility of himself ever being able to be redeemed. He instantly regrets his actions and he realises that he can’t alter what he has done. This sends him mad with grief and remorse.
Despite how bleak the film is there are some kind and decent characters to be found in it. Mr. Brownlow shows us that not everyone in the upper classes was indifferent to the suffering of the poor, and he is a genuinely kind and gentle man.
Nancy retains her sense of morality despite living among thieves and criminals, and despite having done some bad things herself. Nancy can’t stand to see the innocent Oliver get drawn into this life, and so she tries to save him from having to live this way.
The old woman at the workhouse who stole Oliver’s mum’s necklace has a conscience, and she tries to make things right before she dies(only to be betrayed afterwards by the matron). The film also shows us that some people get drawn into a life of theft because they have no other choice. When someone is homeless, jobless and starving, if nobody will help them when they ask for help politely, what choice is left to that person other than to steal to get some money for food etc?
The actors all deliver solid performances. I like that even the actors who appear very briefly get their chance to really shine. There are also many standout performances from the main cast.
Robert Newton delivers one of his finest performances as the terrifying master thief, Bill Sykes. I’m always torn between Robert and Oliver Reed when it comes to considering who played the best Bill Sykes on film. I think Oliver plays the scariest and most sinister, but Robert managed to be scary and still convey how sharp and observant Bill was, and he also convinces us that his Bill genuinely loves Nancy.
Lean regular Alec Guinness pulls a Lon Chaney Sr and is unrecognisable beneath heavy makeup as Fagin. Alec’s portrayal is not as fun and loveable as Ron Moody’s in the musical Oliver. Alec makes Fagin sordid and cunning. There was some controversy over Alec’s performance and over the Fagin makeup (especially the large nose) because some people thought the portrayal of this character was anti-semitic.
John Howard Davies is all sad eyes and innocence as Oliver Twist. John delivers an excellent debut performance here and he would continue acting during the 1940’s and 50’s. He later became a producer and was the man behind the British TV comedy hits Fawlty Towers and The Good Life.
Oliver Twist is one of Lean’s finest film. I think it could also serve as a perfect example to young filmmakers on how to balance story, characters, performances and visuals to create a film which will stand the test of time and wow audiences from any era.
What do you think of the film?