Today: March 3, 2024

The Old Curiosity Shop

Those familiar with The Old Curiosity Shop novel will be vastly aware that this adaptation condenses Charles Dickens’ story to a great extent.

Those familiar with The
Old Curiosity Shop novel will be vastly aware that this adaptation condenses Charles
Dickens’ story to a great extent.

This means it can be hard to follow at times for those who do not know
the story. However, this was a
necessary move in adapting such a large, concise tale to the big screen. Director Thomas Bentley puts extensive effort into encapsulating what
Dickens was trying to say, bringing forth the wonderful imagery, unique
characters and ghostly, eerie mood of the novel.

Bentley was a former Dickens impersonator in stage musicals
and produced several silent versions of Dickens novels, including The Old
Curiosity Shop, until he produced this version in 1934. The story centres around Nell Trent (Elaine Benson), who lives with her shopkeeper
grandfather (Ben Webster), mistakenly
known as ‘the richest man in London.’
Grandfather is secretly gambling away his money whilst borrowing from
the ruthless and demonic money lender, Mr Quilp (Hay Petrie). They
decide to leave their little shop and flee across England to escape his
clutches. They are pursued both by
Quilp and by the shopkeeper’s wealthy, long-lost brother, who also wishes to find
them.

The production design in this film is superb and although
quite theatrical, really captures the period. It is clear that Bentley wished this adaptation to be as
close to Dickens’ novel as possible, in particular to the original
setting. He has been incredibly
successful in this and the locations such as Quilp’s wharf, Grandfather’s shop
and indeed all of Nell’s and Grandfather’s stops on their travels across London
are pretty much an exact replica of the fantastic George Cattermole illustrations in Dickens’ book.

Dickens was of course well known for his incredibly unique
characters with names to match their characteristics. Quilp is truly one of Dickens’ and indeed literature’s most
repulsive but intriguing characters; a hideous person inside – and out. This story has been adapted before and
again since many times, but no adaptation seems to do the character of Quilp as
much justice as this one. Hay Petrie’s
Quilp dominates the film with his Grinch-like smirk, short, hunched stature and
his way of jumping up on furniture in evil delight. He preys on Nell in a disturbing, almost paedophilic way and
tells his boy servant he will ‘scratch (him) with a rusty nail.’ He controls and abuses his wife,
keeping her up all night for no reason, threatening to bite her and pinching
her arm – loving every minute of his cruel domination. The black and white of the movie and the
sombre backdrop provides Quilp with the ideal environment of shadows to creep
around in and he provides some great comedy value as the villain.

Benson’s Nell is true to the character in the novel with her
pale, angelic face. She portrays
her as intelligent and resourceful, whilst still maintaining the sweetness and
innocence of a child. As in
Dickens’ novel, there is always an uncertainty about whether Nell is actually
the living dead from the very beginning of the story and this film makes great
use of Dickens imagery to enhance this idea. Nell’s bed is almost like a grave or a tomb with a stone
angel above it and she has powerful premonitions. There is a particularly eerie moment when Nell is asleep in
a waxwork museum, in a deathly, but peaceful state, surrounded by the
corpse-like presence of the waxwork models.

There are some interesting extras on this DVD,
including: some thoughts on the
film from BFI Dickens Season
curators, Adrian Wootton and Michael Eaton; An interview with
Dickens biographer, Michael Slater
and a short, silent film about Dickens’ London. The adaptation itself is a wonderful version of The Old
Curiosity Shop and is a worthy addition to anyone’s collection, whether a
Dickens fan or not. We can be glad
that this one has fought its way out of the archives. It shows that even with all the more recent adaptations, a
big Hollywood budget is not always required to bring a Dickens story to life: a
simpler, but articulate version is perhaps more believable. If you don’t purchase it for this
reason, purchase it just to witness Petrie’s impressive performance.

Misha Wallace - Social Media Editor

From the age of 4, Misha Wallace became transfixed by movies like Halloween and The Birds from behind the couch, unbeknownst to her family. This has developed in to an obsession with fantasy and horror films (and a considerable number of cheesy 80s and 90s flicks – but she will not be judged). If she was a character in a film she'd be the girl at the end of a horror movie, doused in blood but grinning victorious. Email: misha.wallace@filmjuice.com or find her any time of the day or night on FilmJuice social media.

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