Friday, May 23, 2003


David Lean directed this wonderful adaptation of the Dickens classic which I've never read but feel like I know well through the musical OLIVER! (stage versions and soundtrack albums, not the rather drab film version). The atmospheric opening feels very much like GREAT EXPECTATIONS, but in this instance with a stormy moor and a lone figure heading for a bleak building. It turns out to be a pregnant woman who gives birth in a workhouse. She dies soon after, leaving a locket with a midwife as the only clue to her identity. The boy, named Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies), is raised in an orphanage and is generally mild and passive, except when he makes the mistake of asking for more food, which gets him kicked out and sold in apprenticeship to an undertaker. He escapes that wretched situation and is befriended by a gang of youthful pickpockets who work with the grungy old thief Fagin (Alec Guinness, excellent in the role and made up to look much older than his 34 years) who acts as their fence and father figure. The plot seems to adhere to Dickens fairly well, except that Nancy (Kay Walsh) isn't particularly close to Oliver before she risks her neck to save him from the dangers of tough guy Bill Sikes (Robert Newton) toward the end. Her sacrifice seems to come out of the blue and doesn't have the resonance it does in the musical (and, I assume, in the novel). A young Anthony Newley is the Artful Dodger and Henry Stephenson is Oliver's rich benefactor. The scene of Bill Sikes' attack on Nancy is quite well done--all we see is Bill's dog frantically trying to scratch its way out of the room through the door as Sikes brutally beats Nancy offscreen. The ending is an overblown scene of mob justice that doesn't work; it's difficult to imagine that hundreds of people would get so worked up over the capture of a common thief and a hooligan who killed a whore. The sets are good, especially Fagin's rather spacious hideout. Overall, as good as, and maybe better than, Lean's earlier GREAT EXPECTATIONS.

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