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Based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist is about an orphan boy who runs away from a workhouse and meets a pickpocket on the streets of London. Oliver is taken in by the pickpocket and he joins a household of young boys who are trained to steal for their master. This version of Oliver Twist is topped by Alec Guinness's masterly performance of arch-thug Fagin. Written by
Jenny Evans <J.Evans@uts.edu.au>
The definitive film version of the story atmospheric, dark and well acted
When his mother just about makes it to the workhouse before giving birth then dying, Oliver Twist is born into the only world he has ever known the workhouse and poverty. When he draws the short straw from among the children, Oliver asks for more food at dinner and promptly finds himself up for sale for £5 to any honest trader willing to take him in. Oliver is taken to work for an undertaker until a fight over his mother makes him run away to London where the masters will never find him. Taken in by Fagin's group of child pickpockets, Oliver starts to settle in, until a brush with the law starts to bring his family history to the attention of those lacking scruples.
Watching this film now (or indeed at the time of its release in the UK) it is hard to imagine that it would have sparked a riot in Berlin in its first showing in 1949 or that it was banned for two years in America on the grounds of being anti-Semitic and was only released after significant cuts (10 minutes) had been made. Of course the cynic in me would suggest that the US was making any excuse to limit British films in its cinema due to competition (they don't need to do that any more!) but I guess history is written by the winners and Hollywood is definitely winning that battle. Ironically enough the film was also banned in Israel and Egypt because of Fagin with Israel claiming that Fagin was anti-Semetic and Egypt claiming he was too sympathetic. Any roads, regardless of the historical controversy this film is still considered by many to be the definitive version of Dickens' story and often is in top ten or so when polls for 'greatest British films' are carried out. The plot is dark and sombre as befits the source material, painting a dark world of thieves, poverty and workhouses within which the story of Oliver and his destiny are told. In essence it is a simple story but it is the atmosphere and characters that make it more interesting.
This may have been as successful as some of Lean's other films due to the daft controversies around it, but his is still a very effective job as director. The film feels Victorian and hopeless just like the lives of those in the story, and Lean creates a real atmosphere of despair and fear that is enjoyably dark and has moments that I was surprised to see in a film of the period. The cast do well with the characters and are a big part of its working. Ignoring all the hysteria over 'bad' characters being ethnic (good to see things haven't changed that much), Guinness is good as Fagin and doesn't allow himself to be just a ethnic stereotype he is exploitative but he is also human and we get to see him as just being somebody else's 'boy' as well as Oliver. Newton is who I see when I think of Bill Sykes and Davies is a good Oliver even if his accent is way too posh for a workhouse baby and the film tends to lose him among all the more interesting and seedy characters we come across. Support is good from the likes of Walsh, Sullivan, Newley and others, all combining to produce a colourful collection of dark characters in the seedy streets of London.
Overall this is a good story even if it loses the Oliver story halfway through for a while in favour of the other characters. The direction is great and the whole film is dark and atmospheric. The acting is roundly good and supports the wealth of seedy characters on which the film is built.
I'm not a massive fan of Dickens by and large but if I want to see a version of this story then this is the film I return to.
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