Samuel Johnson is quoted in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson as saying, "Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable and others extremely difficult." That certainly is the case in this screen adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic adventure story Oliver Twist. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood and director Roman Polanski have gone out of their way to depict the harsh conditions of poverty in nineteenth-century London where the gap between the rich and the poor is gigantic. Those on the bottom are forced on a daily basis to come up with creative and daring ways to feed themselves. Those without families who are thrown upon the mercies of others find themselves treated shabbily. Meanwhile, the moneyed class looks down their noses at those who are poor and try to find ways to exploit them.
Nine-year old orphan Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) is brought to a grimy pauper's workhouse where other abandoned and abused souls like him are warehoused and treated as if they were animals. When this newcomer asks for more gruel after being served only a small portion, he is taken by Mr. Bumble (Jeremy Swift) to appear before the Board, which consists of a band of arrogant religious men and snobs who brand him as a trouble-maker. He is apprenticed to Mr. Sowerberry (Michael Heath), an undertaker who is intrigued by his sweet and sad face. His new employer decides to use Oliver as a "mute" mourner at funerals. This sparks the ire of another boy who taunts him about being a foundling and insults his mother. Faced with a return to the workhouse, Oliver runs away.
Arriving in London after a long and arduous walk, he meets a street-smart boy who calls himself the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) who offers him some food and a place to stay. Oliver is introduced to Fagin (Ben Kingsley), a trader in stolen goods who from his apartment in the slum district trains young pickpockets. One of his compatriots is Sikes (Jamie Foreman) whose mistreated girlfriend Nancy (Leanne Rowe) takes a fancy to Oliver. After being trained in the art of stealing, the newcomer is taken out on the streets where he watches the Artful Dodger and another boy rob Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke). Oliver gets in trouble and is saved at the last minute in an appearance before an angry magistrate. The kindly Mr. Brownlow takes him home to his luxurious home where he is given new clothes and what he imagines to be a new lease on life. His benefactor is impressed with Oliver's good manners and offers the boy a chance to live with them. But Fagin and Sikes are frightened that the boy will tell the authorities about their activities and they roar back into Oliver's life, dashing his dreams of a fresh start in the process.
This competent screen version of the classic by Charles Dickens novel offers a glimpse of the newly industrialized London where life is a struggle for those on the bottom. It also presents a picture of some of the permanent social abuses that still plague modern societies. Ben Kingsley steals the film with his portrait of the greedy, malevolent Fagin who despite his lack of positive character qualities does have a fondness in his heart for the boys he looks after. Barney Clark is quite appealing as Oliver Twist. It is something special to see a movie where the protagonist stands out from all the rest on account of his good manners.