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UK 1948
Directed by
David Lean
105 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Oliver Twist

Following on from the success of Great Expectations (1946) Lean returns to Dickens with much of the same team for this adaptation of “Oliver Twist”.  It is not as dramatically satisfying as the earlier film, tending to pantomime characterizations in its schematic telling of young Oliver’s rags-to-riches story but the staging is magnificent (and would seem to owe a good deal to Marcel Carné's 1945 masterpiece Les Enfants Du Paradis),

The narrative follows Oliver (John Howard Davies) from his workhouse birth, his apprenticeship to an undertaker, his falling in with a gang of child thieves under the command of Fagin (Alec Guinness) to his rescue by the kindly Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson). All is coming up roses for Oliver when he falls into the clutches of the sociopathic Bill Sikes (Robert Newton) but is saved by Sikes's girlfriend Nancy (Kay Walsh) who restores Oliver to Brownlow who, in a typical Dickensian twist, turns out to be Oliver’s grandfather.

Once again Guy Green's black and white cinematography is superb and the lavish art direction and production design captures the workhouse poverty of Regency London wonderfully giving them a Hogarthian squalor which is contrasted with the cozy comfort of Mr. Brownlow’s gentlemanly life. Francis L. Sullivan as Mr Bumble the beadle and Kay Walsh as Nancy who inexplicably switches from being wicked witch to protectress both make strong contributions to the success of the film but it is Guinness’s Fagin and the incomparable Robert Newton who keep us focused on proceedings (Guinness's caricaturally Jewish Fagin caused a stir in its day and the film wasn’t released in America until three years later). John Howard Davies is a preternaturally angelic Oliver who remarkably remains apparently completely unaffected by his brutal upbringing and gutter adventures. 

FYI: John Howard Davies had a few more child actor roles before commencing a fruitful career as a television producer. The film was the basis of the 1968 Oscar-winning musical version Oliver!.




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