Mr. Quilp (1975)
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Then came this 1975 film.
In 1840 Dickens was at a type of crossroads regarding how he wrote his novels. "Pickwick Papers" was a comic novel, "Oliver Twist" was a "Newgate" crime novel, and "Nicholas Nickleby" was a social problem novel about the state of the private schools in the backwaters of England which Dickens showed were frauds. But there had been a struggle regarding Dickens' style of writing. "Pickwick" was a 19th Century "picaresque novel", which included short stories and tales that Samuel Pickwick and his companions hear or read on their journeys. "Oliver Twist" was straight forward narrative, but "Nicholas Nickleby" briefly did return to the style of "Pickwick" with Nicholas and several others hear an unrelated tale at an inn about 120 pages from the start of the story.
In 1840 Dickens began "Master Humphrey's Clock". Master Humphrey has a set of friends who visit him and tell stories to each other. Pickwick and his valet Sam Weller (and Sam's father Toby) reappear to tell stories. Eventually Dickens decided to tell one story that got longer and longer - it was his first historic novel, "Barnaby Rudge", which dealt with the 1780 Gordon Riots in London, and anti-Catholic persecution. "Rudge" is one of Dickens least read novels. When finished he turned another of the tales into another novel: "The Old Curiosity Shop". It would prove to be far more popular with the early Victorian public. At the conclusion of it, Dickens announced the closing of "Master Humphrey's Clock".
That he had stretched the 1840 volume to 1842 and two complete novels demonstrated to him that he could not continue the scheme from "Pickwick" of combining two types of writing. He did not give up on shorter fiction. Starting with "A Christmas Carol" in 1843 he'd do his short Christmas novellas for several years.
"The Old Curiosity Shop" was among the most popular novels Dickens wrote in his career. Just why bothers his fans today. It is not a dull novel (nothing Dickens wrote was dull), but the melodrama of it's incomprehensible plot just does not play well today. Later novels of his have melodrama in them: "Dombey And Son" (1848) actually defeats the concept, when the second Mrs. Dombey entraps her would-be villainous seducer John Carker in one of the best turnabouts in Victorian fiction. But here the story line seems determined to ring out every tear possible for the ickiest child heroine/victim in his novels - Little Nell.
SPOILER COMING UP: The plot of "The Old Curiosity Shop" is about how the elderly grandfather of Little Nell owes large sums to a money lender named Daniel Quilp. The reason is he is a gambler and is determined to win a fortune for his granddaughter. Nell loves the old man and tries to dissuade him from gambling but he won't listen. Quilp is a powerful, misshapen dwarf, who terrorizes most people - including a corrupt solicitor named Sampson Brass. Brass's sister Sally is the brains behind her brother and she is able to get along with Quilp. The only friends that Nell has are a neighbor, Dick Swiviller, and a young boy, Kit Nubbins. Quilp uses the Brasses to frame Nubbins for theft, and to isolate the lazy but able Swiviller.
Nell and her grandfather flee and the novel actually takes up their journey through England. In the end nobody wins. Nell dies of exhaustion, and her grandfather dies of a broken heart. Quilp does not profit from his evil. Nubbins is able to prove his innocence, thus ruining both Brasses. To save themselves, Sampson reveals Quilp was behind the scheme. Quilp tries to flee his house on the Thames and falls into the river and drowns. Finally the person telling this story is the younger brother of the grandfather, who was trying to find him and Nell but got there too late.
I told you it was an impossible plot.
Oscar Wilde, speaking half a century after the hey-day of the novel's popularity, said, "One has to have a hard heart to read "The Old Curiosity Shop" and the death of Little Nell without laughing." Wilde's put-down is the general feeling these days. It remains one of the least read of Dickens' novels these days.
The musical score is by Anthony Newley, who plays Dan Quilp, and it is serviceable (but far less memorable than "Oliver" and "Scrooge ). Newley makes a good villain, but he must have been aware of the weaknesses of the preposterous plot: he even takes the trouble of mentioning his "old friend Fagin" in one of the song lyrics, as though reminding the audience of a better designed novel and character. David Warner is good as Sampson Brass, as is Michael Hordern as grandfather, Sarah Varney as Nell, and David Hemmings as Swiveller. But if the film is a good production it still has to survive it's impossible weak plot. I gave it a 7 out of 10 for it's production. It's still lucky to get that.
This musical version is not the best adaptation, the one with Trevor Peacock holds that honour, the Peter Ustinov version is very good also especially for Tom Courtenay's vivid and scary Quilp. It's also not the worst, the animated Burbank Films Australia version from the 80s is. As an adaptation and on its own it's quite good. The songs, especially Sport of Kings and Happiness Pie, are above decent, sung entertainingly performed and move the narrative forward. Just that they're also not songs that'll stay in the mind for a long time. Every Dog Has His Day should have been intact, a crucial element to the story and Quilp's character is depicted in the song(when he realises he's been cheated) and the omission didn't make sense really The choreography is generally spirited and well-directed though with some lethargic spots. Elmer Bernstein's musical direction is more than adept.
With the production values, they're nicely done. The costumes and sets are attractive without being too clean and it has atmosphere without being too dreary. The photography doesn't undermine things, not award-worthy though a long way from amateurish. The story is compellingly adapted, Anthony Newley, who was responsible for the songs, and Michael Tuchner deserve credit for making much of what he has and successfully makes the comic scenes funny(the interrupted tea party is hilarious), the tragic scenes poignant and the darker bits suspenseful. Newley also plays Quilp here and he is brilliant, he manages to make Quilp scary but doesn't forget the twisted comical side to him.
David Hemmings is a sympathetic Swiveller and David Warner's Samuel Brass is beautifully played. As Michael Hordern's nuanced and deeply felt Grandfather. The Little Nell of Sarah-Jane Varley is just lovely and innocent, if somewhat too-good-to-be-true. All in all, quite good musical Dickens version without being the best or worst adaptations of the book. Oliver! and Scrooge are much more memorable however. 7/10 Bethany Cox