Notes On Lean’s Twist

Tuesday last: to Birkbeck’s own Cinema to see David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948). My first time in the cinema, and the first time I’ve seen – gotten around to, rather – the film.

(after a certain age, there’s an awful lot of getting around to things in one’s life… Have to remember that life is more than just a long To Do list – that implies one knows exactly what one wants from life, which is never true…)

The Birkbeck Cinema is really a 70-seat screening room used by various film societies, rather than a popcorn or arthouse venue with a regular daily programme (the smallest single-screen cinema in Central London proper is the Aubin, Shoreditch, as I found out last year). But a lot of the Birkbeck screenings are open to the public – and free, too. Currently there’s a programme of Dickens On Screen, hence the Lean Oliver Twist this week. Others in the programme are listed here, including a 1913 silent version of David Copperfield. 

The cinema is tucked inside Birkbeck’s Gordon Square campus, a row of knocked-through houses that were once home to Virginia Woolf and co. But what’s unexpected is that the architecture around the cinema suddenly transforms from nondescript white Victorian corridors into a riot of multi-coloured 21st century geometrical shapes:

A little research reveals that the cinema was designed by Surface Architects, opened in 2007, and won a RIBA award.

The highlight of the David Lean Oliver Twist for me is the opening five minutes. The film opens on a desolate moor at night, with the horizon framed at a sharp geometric angle (much like the Birkbeck Cinema decor). Nothing for a few seconds, then a figure appears in the distance. Close up – it’s a pregnant young woman, alone, possibly lost, walking uncertainly along a muddy track. She sees a light in a building far off, smiles in relief and walks more quickly. Then a terrifying thunderstorm breaks, she’s caught in the rain, clings to a tree, and her face is contorted in pain as the lightning flashes:

But she struggles on towards the light, makes it to the building’s front gate and is let in by someone from inside, carrying a lantern. As she disappears within, the camera pans up the building to reveal a sign in the wrought iron… “PARISH WORKHOUSE”.

It’s such a perfect opening. And this whole sequence is entirely wordless. It’s not in the novel, strictly speaking, based instead on a suggestion by Lean’s wife Kay Welsh (who plays Nancy in the film). But Dickens would surely approve. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was writing a story that would become not just a classic, but a myth, so a big mythical opening is called for. In fact, any version of Oliver Twist that begins with Oliver’s mother-to-be staggering to get to safety is taking its cue from Lean. It also has echoes of Yeats’s line about something ‘slouching toward Bethlehem to be born’.

(Actually, the beginning of the 2009 Star Trek movie has Captain Kirk’s mother in a similar situation, except in space…)

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