Criterion Sunday 32: Oliver Twist (1948)

© The Criterion Collection

After Great Expectations of a few years earlier (reviewed last week), comes another David Lean adaptation from the works of Charles Dickens and it is far superior. Guy Green outdoes his earlier cinematographic efforts with vast inky pools of blackness from which characters emerge into a shadowy, grey lost world, immured deep in England’s memory, as orphan Oliver is born at a workhouse to a mysterious woman who dies in childbirth, and inducted into a life of poverty and hard grind. It all resolves itself neatly by the end, but it’s given vivacity by the acting, particularly Robert Newton as a frantic Bill Sikes, Kay Walsh as his moll girlfriend, and of course the young John Howard Davies as Oliver. Nowadays the film is most known for Alec Guinness’s creepy comedic turn as Fagin, though I feel Criterion’s liner notes suggesting it’s not anti-semitic because he’s never called a Jew within the film is somewhat disingenuous: it’s clearly a caricature and a fairly unflattering one at that. Still, Fagin is a fairly small element within the whole film, which remains impressive most of all for its beautifully filmed vision of a world that must have felt within reach in 1948 given the ravages of the era in which it was made.

Criterion Extras: Aside from those liner notes, there’s just a trailer and English subtitles, so this is a bare bones package.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean | Writers David Lean and Stanley Haynes (based on the novel by Charles Dickens) | Cinematographer Guy Green | Starring John Howard Davies, Kay Walsh, Alec Guinness, Robert Newton | Length 116 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 July 2015

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