The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947) Review

Nicholas Nickleby's father has died, leaving his widow (Mary Merrall), Nicholas (Derek Bond) and his Nicholas's sister Kate (Sally Ann Howes) destitute. They call on Nicholas's uncle Ralph (Cedric Hardwicke) for help. Nicholas accepts a position as an assistant in a Yorkshire school, Dotheboys Hall, presided over by Wackford Squeers (Alfred Drayton). Nicholas is soon appalled by Squeers's brutality towards his charges, particularly the hapless young Smike (Aubrey Woods)...

Nicholas Nickleby (as the title is often shortened to, though this film version preserves the full seven words) was Dickens's third novel, originally published as a nineteen-part monthly serial between April 1838 to October 1839. Like many of Dickens's early novels it tends towards the episodic: not just because is was written at speed to a deadline, with Dickens often making up plot developments as he went along. (It's fair to say that his later novels show a more sophisticated sense of shape and structure.) It is one of the most adapted of Dickens's novels, having had a stage adaptation while the serial was being published – with a different ending. Dickens did not approve. The best-known stage version was the eight-and-a-half-hour (plus intervals) Royal Shakespeare Company version from 1980, adapted by David Edgar. British television has seen versions in 1977 and 2001. In the cinema, there were silent versions in 1903, 1912 (see below) and 2002, as well as the present version. Melvin Burgess's 2009 young-adult novel Nicholas Dane updates the novel to a contemporary setting.

John Dighton's screenplay streamlines Dickens's narrative, fitting just about every significant incident into an hour and three quarters., and it's put over by a strong cast. As so often, the good guys and girls of the piece are overshadowed by the villains, especially here a steely turn by Cedric Hardwicke. That said, Derek Bond is as cleancut a hero as you would wish, and Sally Ann Howes is very appealing. Stanley Holloway makes a vivid impression as theatre impresario Vincent Crummles. Further down the cast list you will find early roles for Patricia Hayes and (uncredited) Hattie Jacques and Dandy Nichols. Cyril Fletcher, best known in later years as a TV personality (such as in That's Life! in the 1980s) makes one of his three screen acting appearances, all in the 1940s, in a single-scene role as Mr Mantalini. Art direction (Michael Relph), cinematography (the undersung Gordon Dines) and editing (Leslie Norman) are all top-notch.

Much has been said about how much non-Britons contributed to the British film industry, for example the Hungarians Michael Korda and Emeric Pressburger amongst others. This is something that continues to this day, with British films helmed by such as the Swede Tomas Alfredson and the Dane Lone Scherfig. Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti (credited here with his surname only) had worked previously in France, for Jean Renoir amongst others, before coming to England and making films for the GPO and Crown Film Units. His debut feature for Ealing was Went the Day Well?, which I describe in the linked review as one of the darkest films ever released under the Ealing banner. Otherwise, he's best known for helming two of the episodes of Dead of Night in 1945, including the one everyone remembers, featuring Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist dominated by his dummy. Nicholas Nickleby was made between David Lean's two Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist and tends to be overshadowed by them, but is on a part with them. Cavalcanti's imaginative touches enhance the narrative and – in many people's opinion – improve on it in places.


The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is released by StudioCanal on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. The print begins with the 1947 BBFC A certificate, the equivalent of today's PG – though now the film rates a U.

Filmed in black and white and Academy Ratio, the film is transferred to DVD in 4:3, with no anamorphic enhancement present or necessary. Dines's camerawork is heavy on chiaroscuro, being not far away from the then-contemporary style of film noir. Compared to the simultaneously-released 1934 version of The Old Curiosity Shop, it's a sharper transfer, and grain is natural and filmlike.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and is entirely up to the task: clear and well-balanced. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available.

As with the Old Curiosity Shop DVD, the extras begin with two interviews: with Adrian Wootton and Michael Eaton, curators of the BFI Southbank's “Dickens on Screen” season (8:44). They discuss how much Dickens was a “dramatic” novelists, far more so than his contemporaries: his novels lent themselves to stage adaptations in his lifetime and cinema and later television drew upon his works from those media's earliest days. They discuss the performances and compare the film with the two David Lean Dickens adaptations.

The second interview is with Dickens biographer Michael Slater (9:11), who discusses the writing of the novel, following on from the huge success of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. Following on from his attack on the workhouses in Oliver Twist, he turned on Yorkshire schools which acted as a dumping-ground for unwanted children, which became the basis of Dotheboys Hall. He discusses Cavalcanti's take on Dickens, much more astringent than the usual sentimental approach to the novelists.

Also on the disc is a short silent film, namely the 1912 version of Nicholas Nickleby (20:17) directed by George O. Nichols. Given the short running time – the film was made before the first British feature-length film – this is no more than a precis of the story, but it's interesting to compare with Cavalcanti and John Dighton's later approach. Naturally this film is silent – and by silent, I mean that, as there is no soundtrack, at least on the checkdisc this review is based on. If that is the case with retail copies, it's a demerit for StudioCanal, as this same film is available on the BFI's Dickens Before Sound release with a score by Neil Brand.

The extras are concluded by the theatrical trailer (1:54) and a stills gallery.

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