It has been said that Charles Dickens wrote his magazine serials purely to inspire some sympathy amongst his wealthier Victorian counterparts for the less fortunate of society, to impart upon them the surprising notion that poor people were actually human. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby became one of these magazine serials in 1839. Nicholas Nickleby has been converted to celluloid a number of times but this particular Ealing Studios version was born in 1947, adapted by John Dighton (writer of classics Roman Holiday and Kind Hearts and Coronets) and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, now remastered and sparklied up for a 21 st century appearance on DVD.
Ralph Nickleby (Cedric Hardwicke) is the well-off villain of this piece, pretending to help but massively hindering his nephew’s attempts to make sure that he and his mother and sister do not become destitute. Ralph gets a letter saying that his brother has died and asks, very nicely, if he could help his recently bereaved sister-in-law and her children in their time of need. Mr Nickleby is extremely reluctant to help his close relatives, naturally, but does say he will find jobs for the two children and will give the mother and daughter somewhere to live, on strict conditions.
Nicholas Nickleby (Derek Bond) is forced into becoming a teaching assistant in a poor excuse for a school up north where he befriends a poor orphan boy who is being used as a skivvy at the school. Nicholas’ sister Kate (Sally Ann Howes) gets work as a seamstress and is used as a shiny object to tempt her uncle’s possible business partners into doing deals. Nicholas gets fed up of the awful conditions at the school and leaves, rescuing his orphan friend on the way. All the cruelty and meanness perpetrated by Ralph Nickleby then comes to a head, in traditional Dickens Fashion.
Derek Bond was a good choice for the role of Nicholas, his interpretation of the character coming across as well-meaning and compassionate rather than pious and any other words which mean annoying person. The Villainous Ralph Nickleby is excellently played by Cecil Hardwicke, easily outshining the rest of the cast. The narrative, rather than relying on that central hero and villain relationship, receives a lot of help from a number of characters, especially Ralph Nickleby’s man servant Newman Noggs (Bernard Miles), Ralph’s ungentlemanly business contacts and the illiterate head of the house of pain (or school).
The book upon which the film is based is good, yes, but this adaptation definitely gets top marks for its warmth and fast paced script. You always know how it’s going to end up but it’s no less entertaining for that fact.
The extras contain a couple of gems for your perusal; my personal favourites being the interview with Dickens Biographer Michael Slater and the addition of an earlier version, silent film Nicholas Nickleby (1912).