David Lean's ambitious interpretation of this Charles Dickens classic is a powerful but flawed film. Guy Green's hyaline cinematography dominates the picture from its opening shots of a terrified young woman stumbling around in a stormy heath to its closing scenes of mob violence. His camera is perched above the characters, implying moral superiority to the many flawed characters, while making the ever-vulnerable Oliver look cowed and beaten. The turbulent world of mid-19th century London, with its incessant hustle and bustle of human industry, is recreated so carefully that the vibrant set designs almost overshadow the memorable characters that roam these streets. A smorgasbord of urban decay, social disorder, and class conflict imbues the film with a potent sensuality, as both natural elements and human architecture conspire to consume the disadvantaged. An unrecognisable Alec Guinness, endowed with pounds of prosthetics to mask his youthful vigour, creates a sympathetic Fagin out of a potentially racist caricature. Robert Newton's Mephistophelean Bill Sikes is exemplary, particularly in the scene in which he brutally murders Nancy then sits in tortured and hysterical contemplation of the deed. Dickens' faith in the human spirit is well-depicted in Oliver's ability to survive despite the cruelty of this unjust world. Both Dickens when he wrote the novel and Lean when he filmed it were men near the beginning of their careers whose optimism shone through the darkness of the material. However, the film closes with scenes of mob vigilantism and sentimentality that carry messages betraying the social commentary that precedes them.
by Dan Jardine review