While both of the Dickens adaptations walk the line between the epics of late Lean and the small scale dramas that defined his earlier career, Oliver Twist truly stands at the midway point. The soft-hearted Capra-ness of Great Expectations holds it firmly attached to the earlier films. Twist retains some of this populist optimism while adding the visceral, dry direction of Lean’s later works. The stunning opening sequence of Oliver’s unfortunate delivery bears great resemblance to the long silences of Lawrence of Arabia.
We all know the story whether it be from a stage play, another movie adaptation (Polanski did a wonderful job back in 2005), or the original text. Lean’s version is more visceral and rough than most translations I’ve encountered (although the original text is one that I have not). His version does not try to soft-coat the legitimacy of the tragic events it displays. Too often do institutions like Disney feel that because a story is about a kid, it must be a kid’s story. But this is a considerable piece of literature that, while uplifting, is a moral tale whose protagonist is an unassuming orphanage living in a dark world (even by orphanage standards).
“Please sir, I want some more,” has become a staple line that, like the story itself, could be extracted from every conceivable adaptation from Polanski to Wishbone. John Howard Davies delivers the line with the appropriate confidence, which he sustains for the duration of the film. What is alarming (for a David Lean film) is that the dialogue sustains its confidence as well. Lean wrote this screenplay to incorporate lots of visual intrigue, but is a director who is notoriously awkward when it comes to dialogue. Twist, being the middle ground between the landscapes of his later films and the dialogue of his earlier films proves to be a solid blend that is uncharacteristically consistant in tone.
Like Great Expectations, Lean takes the source material to the cutting room in an appropriate fashion. The most notable differences surround the character Nancy who enters the film later than expected and is a more sympathetic character than I remembered. Also, the failed burglary scene is omitted. Together these changes soften the story a little bit, but do not render the cheesiness of the Great Expectations ending. It is a fairly straightforward adaptation, as should be expected when the source is Charles Dickens.
Despite my extended appraisal of how this films is the perfect mid-career David Lean storm, Lean’s down-to-earth delivery that granted him auteur status has never resonated with me. Lean once said that, “you remember the big picture not a few lines of dialogue.” For many, including him, this was probably the case. And while I won’t argue against remembering the big picture, I will gladly refute his dismissal of dialogue. Lean can beautifully articulate a silence and stage aesthetically pleasing scenes, but his deliberate dryness hinders the magic of cinema for me. While I still find Oliver Twist to be a near-great work from Lean, it is his last work before the visuals completely took over. His later films aren’t by any stretch disastrous, but for someone who worships the fast-paced dialogue of such writers as Billy Wilder and David Mamet, the earlier works have more appeal.
David Lean regular, Alec Guinness is in full form embodying the famous thief, Fagin. The film was condemned as being anti-semitic because Guinness wore a false nose and his character is negatively depicted. This was, of course, not the intent and is now no more than water under the bridge.
Overall, this is probably the definitive edition of the classic story. At least in terms of cinematic adaptations. It is a riveting film that captures the time while appropriately displaying it from a youth’s perspective. A landmark film for Lean and his last work before the epics took over, Oliver Twist is not to be missed.