BBC Video // 2007 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // May 5th, 2009
"Death doesn't change us more than life."
Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop was initially published as a wildly popular serial from 1840 to 1841. The story goes that the tale of Little Nell and her grandfather was so popular that Dickens fans in New York City met ships arriving from England by shouting "Is Little Nell alive?," hoping that someone on board had read the final chapters. The story has been filmed multiple times, both as a movie and a miniseries. In 2007, Britain's ITV undertook a new version, starring Derek Jacobi and Toby Jones. There is much to like about this movie, but the evidence will show that The Old Curiosity Shop falls flat on its face, not so much because of material cut from the original, but because of a changed ending that fails to provide anything remotely resembling a satisfactory resolution.
Given that the book is a classic tale over a hundred fifty years old, I don't feel particularly compelled to avoid spoilers, though I will relegate them to the Evidence and Rebuttal sections.
Nell Trent (Sophie Vavasseur, Becoming Jane) is a beautiful, virtuous teenager who lives with her grandfather (Derek Jacobi, I, Claudius), who runs The Old Curiosity Shop, a curio shop full of odds and ends. Nell's only real friend is Kit, a young boy who works at the shop. Nell's grandfather (his name is never mentioned) slowly but surely gambles away all of his money, finally running afoul of the ruthless moneylender Quilp (Toby Jones, The Mist). Quilp knows the old man's gambling problem, and realizes that it is only a matter of time until he will own the Old Curiosity Shop, leaving both Nell and her Grandfather in debtor's prison. In the meantime, Nell's wastrel brother Freddie (Bryan Dick, Bleak House), convinced that the old man has a fortune sacked away, schemes with the gullible Dick Swiveller for Swiveller to marry Nell, allowing the two men to split the (nonexistent) fortune.
Nell and her grandfather flee to the English Midlands, with Nell picking up bits of work here and there. Swiveller attempts to track them down, along with Quilp, furious that the two have escaped him. Quilp goes so far as to get Swiveller a job with Quilp's lawyer, Mr. Brass, so that Quilp can keep a close watch on him. Kit, however, has found employment with a mysterious gentleman also seeking Nell and her grandfather. Unfortunately, they encounter Quilp who, mistrustful of the stranger, frames Kit for theft and has the boy thrown in prison. The stranger seeks to vindicate Kit, and in the process starts to unravel some of Quilp's many plots. Nell and her grandfather manage to stay one step ahead of Quilp, but every time they run, their straits become more desperate. No matter how desperate they are, the old man manages to find some money to gamble away.
I've not read the novel, but the film feels a little rushed at times, though not enough to be a serious problem. The original story is long -- this is Dickens, after all -- with the Penguin paperback clocking in at a brisk 608 pages; we can take it for granted that a fair amount of material was cut to achieve the 120-minute run time. Many of Dickens' longer works were fairly episodic in nature, so sections could easily be excised without affecting the plot. Some additional time could have been devoted to developing the relationship of Nell and her grandfather during their travels. In any event, slight gaps in the plot and the absence of myriad subplots are alleviated by the film's stunning visuals. Director Brian Percival and cinematographer Peter Greenhalgh create images drenched in mood, with sharp details, ominous shadows, and warm glows. Objects move through the foreground and background, suggesting that the characters' actions take place within a broader tapestry.
Dickens often becomes an actors' showcase, and that is certainly the case here. Sophie Vavasseur holds the film together with her controlled performance as Nell, while Derek Jacobi is his usual solid self. Toby Jones, however, pretty much steals the show as the despicable Quilp, who schemes and sneers through the entire movie. The characters are sharply defined, even those such as Mrs. Jarley (Zoë Wanamaker, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), an eccentric whom Nell and her grandfather encounter in the woods. The strong characterizations further reinforce the idea that this is just one story; England is full of others who have been preyed upon by the likes of Quilp.
The disc is very good technically as well. You could not appreciate the richness of the photography without a solid transfer, which is precisely what you get here. The 5.1 audio track is well used; nothing happens in a vacuum, and the mix creates a rich ambient sound field full of background noise in which the action takes place. There are no extras; the movie's Web site has links to some brief clips with Jacoby, Jones, and Vavasseur discussing their roles, but none of the links work. I can't imagine why they didn't include the clips as extras; it would have also been useful to hear someone explain why some of the story changes were made.
Oh, jeez, that ending. The novel has a King Lear-esque arc; the grandfather's continued gambling sinks them deeper and deeper into woe, forcing Nell to beg in the wet and cold of an English winter. They are finally found by the mysterious stranger, who turns out to be the grandfather's long-estranged younger brother. They are reconciled, and plan to return to the shop in London, but Nell has suffered too much, and she dies. Her grandfather suffers a breakdown, keeping vigil at Nell's graveside until he dies a few months later. Hardly an uplifting conclusion, to be sure, but there's sense of dramatic balance, particularly since Quilp, whose deceits finally come to light, dies while trying to evade capture.
In the film, Quilp gets his, and Nell dies with her grandfather by her side. However, the mysterious gentleman turns out to be Nell's father; he, Nell's grandfather, and Kit all return to the Old Curiosity Shop, and life goes on. Fin. To which I can only say, WTF?!? The ending trivializes Nell's suffering; adding insult to injury, we get a lingering shot of Nell's grave, tended not by her grandfather, or even her father, but rather a minister. Seriously: Nell dies, and two minutes later, the credits roll. The film doesn't conclude, but rather simply stops.
The end result is a sort of mental whiplash -- the ending in no way, shape, or form, rings true with the rest of the story.
The Old Curiosity Shop has enough strengths that it could have overcome a seriously abridged story, but the ill-considered ending leaves the viewer at a complete loss.
BBC Video has the court's thanks for such a technically strong disc, but by God, someone's going to pay for the end of the film.
Review content copyright © 2009 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia: The Old Curiosity Shop
* Official Site