Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and filmed at Ealing Studios
Directed by Alberto
Cavalcanti and filmed at Ealing Studios, this version of The Life and Adventures
of Nicholas Nickleby was the first adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel to be
filmed with sound.
When his father dies, Nicholas Nickleby (Derek Bond) is left penniless, along
with his mother and sister, Kate (Sally
Ann Howes). Enter Cedric Hardwicke as Uncle Ralph
Nickleby, a malicious moneylender who, with ulterior motives in mind, finds
Nicholas a job as a teacher in a detestable school for boys. It is here that Nicholas must contend
with villain, Wackford Squeers (Alfred
Drayton), who torments and abuses the boys, in particular the slow and
nervous, Smike (Aubrey Woods). Nicholas flees the school with Smike and
they begin work in the theatre.
Nicholas then discovers he must rescue his sister from the clutches of
his ruthless uncle as he makes her a source of prey for his clients.
Bond plays Nickleby with sincerity, portraying him as the
pragmatic, respectable gentleman from the novel. You can tell from the beginning of the film that Nickleby is
destined for success just by how he comes across as a character. You cannot help but feel empathy for
Woods as Smike, hunching and cowering from consistent abuse since the age of
five and Hardwicke is very believable as ruthless Uncle Ralph. Stanley
Holloway provides some comedic relief as flamboyant Vincent Crummles, head of
the Crummles theatre troupe.
Overall, the actors portray their characters well but there is something
lacking – they never quite fully put across the individual quirks of Dickens’
unique characters. The only
exception to this is Bernard Miles
as Newman Noggs, Ralph’s clerk. He
plays the role to a tee, ambling slowly through the film in his once fine, but
now tattered suit until his disturbing, but gripping half-hysteria towards the
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby depicts Dickens’
London fairly well, mainly with the horror of the childrens’ workhouse and
social injustices, but it lacks the vibrancy of say David Lean’s Oliver Twist
or Thomas Bentley’s The Old Curiosity Shop. It needs an injection of the Dickens
spirit that makes a story come alive.
That said, there are some dramatic moments, one in particular being when
Kate is being preyed upon by her uncle’s clients at the opera – this is a
climactic scene that really demonstrates her distress and claustrophobia. The black and white, camera
angles and use of shadow allow for some nice menacing shots of the characters
throughout the film at the moments that really matter, particularly as the
story reaches its climax.
There are a whole range of interesting extras on this DVD
which include an interview with BFI
Dickens Season curators, Adrian
Wootton and Michael Eaton and George O. Nichols’ 1912 silent
adaptation of the story. These
extras along with the film itself really make it worth the purchase. This may not be one of the most
interesting Dickens adaptations, but this film has romance and intrigue and is
still definitely worth a watch.