tue 20/11/2018

DVD: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby/ The Old Curiosity Shop | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby/ The Old Curiosity Shop

DVD: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby/ The Old Curiosity Shop

Two enjoyable, neglected Dickens films, back for the bicentennial

The original UK poster for 'Nickleby' in 1947

Celebrations of Dickens’ bicentenary will soon be elbowed aside by the Olympics, Jubilee and European Football Championships. Amidst all that flag-waving, these two mid-20th century Dickens films convey a love for England’s landscape and character truer than patriotism.

Alberto Cavalcanti, Ealing Studios’ Brazilian wild card, brings an outsider’s brisk enjoyment to his 1947 Nickleby. Set in the 1830s of Dickens’ youth, the bright garb of pre-Victorian fops and sunny Hampshire countryside make this black-and-white film dazzle with life. Cavalcanti finds film noir shadows and corners from which to watch Ralph Nickleby (Cedric Hardwicke, above right) plot the ruin of nephew Nicholas and his dependents in soot-dark London. But even Squeers’ (Alfred Drayton, second right) thuggish rule of his Yorkshire school is leavened with sardonic humour. Derek Bond gives some life to the bland hero, and from Bernard Miles’ swivel-eyed, surreptitiously moral Newman Noggs (above centre) to Hardwicke, malign emotion damped to icy flickers of loathing till he is harried by guilt through a storm-lashed house, this is a sharp-witted, brightly entertaining tale.

Thomas Bentley (a veteran of eight silent Dickens adaptations) is more statically theatrical with 1934's The Old Curiosity Shop. But Hay Petrie’s Quilp, a cross between Rumpelstiltskin and Fredric March’s capering Edward Hyde of three years before, is charismatically, wantonly evil. The death of Little Nell (Elaine Benson, left) is lavished with Victorian sentiment, but briefly. The road away from London is in both films filled with grotesques, faces plucked from music halls.

As with Sherlock Holmes, illustrated periodical publication meant Dickens’ visual template was set early. So the 1912 silent Nickleby - included as an extra - looks like a low-budget précis of Cavalcanti's film, gamely taking 20 minutes to blaze through Dickens’ novel, its era then just within living memory. The Old Curiosity Shop’s extra, Dickens’ London (1924), tours the capital’s Dickensia only a half-century after the writer’s death, much, like the alleged original Old Curiosity Shop and Bill Sykes’ Bethnal Green, long gone. Director Frank Miller aptly concludes: “Dickens’ characters move among us to this day – their costumes have changed, that is all. And, while London exists, the spirit of Dickens will never die.”

Watch one of the Nickleby extras, on Dickens in cinema, on YouTube:

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