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Oliver Twist (1948)

The Criterion Collection

Cast: Alec Guinness, Robert Newton, John Howard Davies.

Rating: PG

Run time: 116 mins..

Genre: Drama

Verdict: Brilliant (see rating system)

Still widely regarded as the best Oliver Twist movie and likely the best film adaptation of a Charles Dickens' novel, this British-made classic has been beautifully restored by The Criterion Collection.

Oliver Twist was the second big success for famed director David Lean - the first was Great Expectations in 1946 - and he would go on to make Bridge On The River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and other landmark films.

Lean's imaginative hand is evident right from the start: a storm blows up over a lonely English moor as a pregnant woman, barely able to walk, arrives exhausted at the Workhouse gates. Before she dies, the woman gives birth to a boy - named Oliver Twist by a pompous workhouse officer.

The story is a savage indictment of the cruel treatment afforded orphans in Victorian England, following Oliver's wretched childhood, his miserable apprenticeship with a funeral director and his subsequent escape to the foul streets of London. After briefly finding kindness with the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson), Oliver falls prey to a gang of child thieves led by the crafty Fagin. (Alec Guinness's vivid, layered portrayal of Fagin is one of the film's highlights, but it was labeled anti-semitic by some at the time).

John Howard Davies was just nine years old when cast as Oliver, his haunted, melancholy face perfect for the role. A great child actor, Howard Davies later found his true calling as a TV producer and director of such comedy classics as Mr. Bean, Monty Python's Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers.

Robert Newton is wonderful as the wild and violent thief Bill Sykes and Kay Walsh brings tenderness and vulnerability to her role as Sykes' girlfriend Nancy.

Lean recreates the seedy, sooty London of the late 1830s with great skill, which looks totally authentic in this black and white film. Victorian London was so dirty it really was either black or white.

Like Dickens' book, this is a story that has the power to move audiences to tears, anger, and amusement.

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