The Old Curiosity Shop

The Old Curiosity Shop


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

As you’ll scarcely have failed to notice, this year marks the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth. And amid all the heritage industry ballyhoo a singularly agreeable by-product has been the rediscovery and reissue of several film versions of his novels.

The Great Entertainer’s work was always prime meat for dramatisation – plots which at their core were relatively straightforward clashes of good against evil and major characters who were vividly defined to the point of stereotype (or archetype) facing off against a richly realised backdrop populated by a host of eccentric (and often more ambiguous) secondary players.

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Even as the novels themselves were being serialised, theatrical adaptations sprang up and tours of ‘greatest hits’ dramatic readings by the author himself drew audiences of thousands, though the punishing schedule ultimately contributed to his death in 1870 at the relatively early age of 58.

But the invention of the ‘magic lantern’ soon after really got the ball rolling, with his melodramatic plots and larger-than-life characters ideally suited to the silent era. That was where Old Curiosity Shop director Bentley cut his teeth (he’d also produced a one-man show based on Dickens’ work). And when the coming of sound gave him the chance to let actors trained to plaster the back of a provincial rep with their lightest whisper loose on the Old Master’s rich-as-plum-cake dialogue, the result was this little gem.

Reissued to coincide with the BFI's mammoth retrospective of Dickens on film at the NFT, it will inevitably be compared to David Lean’s peerless late 40s diptych, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. While never ascending those giddy heights, it does a no-nonsense, often inspired job of tackling one of his lesser-known and least-admired works.

Written to a tight schedule at the height of the young author’s popularity, even his greatest admirers (among whom I’ve counted myself since getting joyously lost in David Copperfield aged 12) would admit the plot’s a bit of a hodge-podge. And the impossibly angelic heroine Little Nell (here portrayed by young Elaine Benson as the poshest London shopgirl you ever did ‘ear) brought his unworldly sentimental streak right to the fore, as she struggles to keep her gambling addict grandfather (Ben Webster) on the straight and narrow.

But Bentley realised, like most adaptors since, who the real star of this show is – Quilp, the dwarf moneylender who’s got his hooks into the pair and is determined to acquire the deeds to the titular shop, as well as the secret fortune he’s convinced the old boy has stashed away somewhere.

He lights up the book whenever he appears – unrepentantly cruel and avaricious, undeniably sensual and sexual (his creepy solicitations after Little Nell and physical cruelty towards his downtrodden wife offer a PHD’s worth of repressed Victorian sublimations) but possessing a vitality and charisma that makes all the other characters seem insubstantial ghosts.

He’s been played by everyone from Toby Jones to Anthony Newley but for my money Hay Petrie’s incarnation is the best of the lot. Bounding on to the screen with a vampiric, vulpine leer and a voice coated in villainy he bestrides the film from first to last like a British Lon Chaney, equal parts fairytale hobgoblin and Limehouse wharf Richard III.

It’s something of a shock to discover that Petrie was a normally-proportioned jobbing actor – he’d won a reputation on stage in the 20s for his Shakespearean ‘clown’ roles and crowned his career playing Uncle Pumblechook in Lean’s Great Expectations. Physically, his embodiment of the stunted, misshapen usurer is astounding and he enunciates his gleefully gloating machinations like Claude Rains at his oiliest. All in all, a genuine star turn which makes one wonder why he never went on to bigger things.

But, as in the book, things just aren’t the same when he’s off stage. As Nell and her grandfather flee to the countryside to escape their Nemesis, they encounter a selection of ‘hilariously eccentric’ minor characters and play out a coincidence-ridden plot that will be instantly recognisable to any fans of ‘The Bleak Old Shop Of Stuff’.

Neale and Kennedy do a reasonable job of moderating the excesses and trimming down a book fairly rich in fat. There’s still a lot of ground to cover, though, and the later scenes have a somewhat rushed feel. Plus, there’s no getting away from a climax of such cloying, manipulative heartstring-tugging that it famously prompted Oscar Wilde to remark that you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh.

But along the way there’s much to admire. Though Petrie steals the show, the rest of the cast acquit themselves well. Miss Benson’s voice may be a bit too charm school but she looks every inch the radiant, ethereal Nell, too morally good and physically frail for this cruel world. Webster’s equally good value as the well-intentioned but weak and selfish grandfather, proof that Dickens could create greyer and more realistically flawed human beings than his critics would have us believe. And there’s a rich, classically Dickensian comic turn from Reginald Purdell as Dick Swiveller, a lackey of Quilp’s tame lawyer whose discovery of a conscience and a backbone sets the plot’s denouement in motion.

The set design is closely based on the book’s original illustrations and vividly conjures up the higgledy-piggledy streets and wharves of Victrorian London. And when the story hits the road, the outdoor cinematography by Claude Friese-Greene (son of the photography pioneer William) is exquisite, crisply delineating the windswept fields, alehouses and churchyards of an England that still resembled Dickens’ world more than our own.

A must, of course, for fans of a great storyteller who perhaps had more in common with Steven Spielberg than he had with Flaubert or Tolstoy. And worth a look for anyone who wants to remember an era when directors were inspired by storybooks and classic theatre rather than computer games, music videos and other people’s films.

Reviewed on: 23 May 2012
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The Old Curiosity Shop packshot
A young shopgirl and her grandfather flee from London to escape an evil moneylender.
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Director: Thomas Bentley

Writer: Margaret Kennedy, Ralph Neale, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Starring: Hay Petrie, Elaine Benson, Ben Webster, Reginald Purdell

Year: 1934

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK


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