Nicholas Nickleby Review
Until their recent adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, 1947’s Nicholas Nickleby was Ealing Studios only film based on a major literary work. Following the success of the 1946 take on Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, studio head Michael Balcon appointed Alberto Cavalcanti to direct a version of the author’s third novel. However, owing to the preceding David Lean picture and his Oliver Twist film of 1948, Nicholas Nickleby has become somewhat neglected. Its release as part of the ‘Ealing Classics DVD Collection’ is to be welcomed therefore, though admittedly this may be entirely due to the novel having recently revisited on the big screen by Douglas McGrath.
As with the two David Lean masterpieces, Nicholas Nickleby arrives on-screen in a heavily truncated version, though still manages to retain the essentials over its 102 minute running time. (Intriguingly, the very first cinematic take on the novel consisted of a single shot!) Following the death of his father, Nicholas Nickleby (Derek Bond), and his mother (Mary Merrall) and sister (Sally Ann Howes), are taken into the care of his uncle Ralph (Cedric Hardwicke). The uncle arranges for Nicholas to gain a tutoring job at an Academy for boys run by the vicious Mr. Squeeg (Alfred Drayton), where he is shocked by the brutality and befriends one of the boys, Smike (Aubrey Woods). Meanwhile, his sister is attracting the unwelcome attentions of a number of Ralph’s friends.
Of course, this being a Dickens adaptations the plot runs through a number of progressions and revelations, though the brief synopsis serves to highlight the relationships that form the basis of Cavalcanti’s film. Owing to the film’s reasonably brisk duration and the size of its source, the pacing is understandably assured. However Nicholas Nickleby suffers immeasurably from its treatment of the main protagonists. Derek Bond in the lead role is remarkably bland, and the same goes for the performances of Sally Ann Howes, Mary Merrall and Aubrey Woods. Whilst the acting may be technically fine, the film treats each of the characters as either white or black, so to speak, allowing for no shades of grey. To put it another way, each of these characters is so indisputably good that they come across as wholly one-dimensional.
Thankfully, Cavalcanti has populated his cast with a number of fine character actors to fill out the supporting roles. Most notable is Bernard Miles as Newman Noggs, clerk to Ralph Nickleby and friend to Nicholas. This connection with both the main hero and main villain of the piece provides a character far more interesting than the non-entities on display elsewhere. Moreover, the role marks a break from those Miles was better known for at the time such as Joe Gangery in Great Expectations as well as numerous military men in the likes of Tawny Pipit and In Which We Serve. All of these characters more immediately respectable than Noggs, and it is apparent that Miles is displaying a certain relish with the role. Most intriguing, however, is the truly garish hairstyle his character possesses, further removing him from the respectability of the main cast.
Bernard Miles is not the only actor to make a huge impression. Both Cedric Hardwicke and Alfred Drayton provide wonderful Dickens grotesques as the two main villains, and one wishes Cavalcanti had afforded them greater screen-time, as it is only during their moments on-screen that the film truly comes alive.
Indeed, it appears that much of the blame for the film’s failings can be placed with director Alberto Cavalcanti. Having previously worked on such British classics as Went the Day Well? and the Ventriloquist’s Dummy segment of Dead of Night, Cavalcanti had shown a real flair for introducing violence into seemingly benign places. With Nicholas Nickleby however, the results are more akin to melodrama and possess little of the dramatic edge these previous works display. Thankfully, the film still makes keen use of the director’s visual eye (most likely the result of his background in experimental cinema, having worked on the classic shorts Coal Face and Night Mail). Utilising Michael Relph and Gordon Dines as art director and director of photography respectively, the two work with Cavalcanti to produce an almost film noir quality, and undoubtedly capture the grotesque air of Dickens that was also apparent in both of David Lean’s adaptations. Indeed, it is this quality and the wonderful turns from the supporting members of the cast that allow Nicholas Nickleby to remain an interesting picture despite its conspicuous flaws.
Sadly Warner Bros have offered nothing in the way of extras to accompany this release. Thankfully, the presentation is for the most part fine. Whilst a number of scratches are apparent, the print remains clean for the most part, though perhaps a little too soft to do complete justice to the fine cinematography. Soundwise, the original mono is present, here split over the front two speakers. Despite the age of the film, this remains clear throughout, with no audio dropouts apparent. Indeed, Warner Bros are to be congratulated for releasing the film in a reasonable condition, despite it being a far way off from classic status.
This disc is only available as part of the Ealing Classics DVD Collection box set. The other titles featured are Dead of Night, Scott of the Antarctic and Went the Day Well?.