Saturday, January 8, 2011

Lean's Twist: No Place for Children

I've always associated David Lean with those grand, sweeping, drawn-out epics (film's equivalent to Tolstoy?) and pretty much avoided him. I've never been able to sit through Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in its entirety, and A Passage to India (1984) left me a bit cold. Judy Davis's performance was unusually odd and stifled, and I wasn't surprised to read that she and Lean were regular head-butters. Doctor Zhivago (1965) was beautiful, but not enough to balance the scales in Lean's favor and make me crave more. Luckily, though, and spurred on by my absolute love for Brief Encounter's (1945) simplicity and black-and-white cinematography, my opinion has changed. (Not concerning the epics, but in the realization that Lean's earlier films are works I can appreciate.)

I was lucky enough to catch both Hobson's Choice (1954) and Madeleine (1950) (both Victorian-noirs in the vein of Gaslight [1944] and The Spiral Staircase [1945]) at the PFA's David Lean tribute last year, but it is really his films from the 1940s that provide a wonderful antithesis to his post-'60s extravaganzas. (Two other greats: The Passionate Friends [1949], a sort of companion piece to Brief Encounter, and Great Expectations [1946].) True, Noel Coward probably deserves a lot of credit for this, as he collaborated with Lean on four films from the '40s (including Brief Encounter, which was based on a Coward play), but within the first few frames of Oliver Twist (1948) it's apparent that Lean is quite capable of conducting his own electric and cinematic wizardry.

Of all the film versions of Dickens's Oliver Twist, Lean's is the most beautiful, the most devastating, and the most atmospheric. You can tell that both Carol Reed and Roman Polanski were aware of its importance. Acknowledging that several key scenes from Lean's Oliver had already been portrayed to perfection, both directors chose to include almost exact replicas in their versions. (The boys eating porridge, and looking on, half-starved, as the adults gorge themselves on a fine feast.) Interestingly enough, though, both directors also excluded Lean's infamous opening scene of Oliver's mother arriving at the workhouse. This scene is perhaps the best film opener I've seen. Amid a violent storm: close-ups of twisted, thorny branches, a pregnant young girl clutching the prison-like gates of the workhouse, shadows swallowing her up. The rain, the mud, everything working against her. She is doomed, but, of course, we can't help hope for a miracle.

The entire opening sequence was conceived by Lean's second wife, Kay Walsh, who plays Nancy. Nancy is an interesting character, and used very differently by Lean and Reed. The relationship between Oliver and Nancy is more developed in Reed's Oliver! (1968), however, I can't help but feel that the suspenseful tavern scene in Lean's version does more to establish Nancy's character than the extra screen time given to her by Reed. Lean (and Walsh's) Nancy is more complex. She's more crass, more beaten down, and more concerned with her own survival as the only woman amongst a world of orphan boys and thieving men (both Reed and Polanski give Nancy a girlfriend to hang with; Lean leaves her on her own; I'm not sure which was true to Dickens). Walsh's Nancy also doesn't have the advantage of a musical number to unite her with the used and abused Oliver. You're not quite sure where she stands, but finally recognizing Walsh's transition from indifferent spectator to sacrificial protector is phenomenal. Oliver Reed's portrayal of Bill Sikes in Oliver! is much more successful, creepy/on-the-edge/disturbing-wise, than Robert Newton's in Lean's version, but Walsh's performance (especially in that wonderfully suspenseful tavern scene) hardly allows Newton's less-threatening Bill to detract from her terrifying plight. This is the moment when you really question what you've seen of Bill Sikes, and take note of that underlying violence that's been scratching at the surface the entire time. (And adds a whole new level of horror to his treatment of Nancy later on.) But Nancy is Oliver's mother re-born. Another woman who will die so he can live. She knows it without fully accepting it.
Where Reed favors comedy (his is a musical, after all), Lean favors tragedy and borrows many elements from noir. Lean introduces us to Oliver: a frail, trembling, literally half-starved-looking young boy scrubbing the cold floors all alone. Reed's Oliver is a cherub (his face seems to glow), and, despite tattered rags and bare feet, he is at least surrounded by fellow orphans and friends. Another major difference between the two is the portrayal of Fagin, performed by a pre-famous Alec Guinness in Lean's version, and Ron Moody in Reed's version. Moody's Fagin is goofy, harmless, and selfish while still concerned for Oliver's well-being. When he teaches Oliver to pickpocket, he does it with the full understanding that the lesson should be fun and entertaining, and he relishes Oliver's smiles and giggles. He's not a bad guy, just trying to get along in a harsh reality. Guinness's portrayal is very different, and, I assume, more true to Dickens. His selfishness is discomforting, and he never lets you rest in trying to figure him out. He refuses an understanding that he is either purely selfish, and thus dangerous, or that he is pathetic, and sad, and desperate, and perhaps even more dangerous.

More so than both Reed and Polanski (whose version was a complete dud) David Lean brings Dickens's story to life as a dark and deadly world in which children are at the mercy of the corrupted. At one point in Reed's film, Oliver bows to Fagin with respect. It's treated as a joke, and the other boys laugh at him. In Lean's film, you understand that such behavior has been beaten into him.


Laura said...

One of my favorite Leans pics so far is "Great Expectations." It's wacky and fun in a heavily Dickensian way, with Guinness making yet another early appearance. I also really enjoy Jean Simmons as the bratty young Estella and Martita Hunt as the out-there Miss Havisham. I still haven't seen "Oliver Twist," but after reading this post I think I need to rectify that.

Ms.Zebra said...

Oh, if you loved Great Expectations, you will surely love Oliver Twist. The two go hand in hand. And, yes, Jean Simmons as a bratty adolescent is great :)