Film adaptation, particularly of a ‘classic’ novel, is a tricky business. A period adaptation is even more so. In adaptation studies and in general discussion about such films, the talk (rightly or wrongly) tends to turn to issues of fidelity, authenticity and the ability of film to translate or transform literature into something visual in nature. Although they produced several adaptations, Ealing was never a studio that focused on period films, perhaps preferring to leave that to the melodramatic experts over at Gainsborough.
If you look at Ealing’s output between 1938 and 1959, few of their productions are set in the distant (i.e. pre-World War One) past. By my count, only eight meet that criteria: Champagne Charlie (1944), Fiddlers Three (1944), Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947), Nicholas Nickleby (1947), Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), Scott of the Antarctic (1947), and Eureka Stockade (1949). Of that eight, only two (Fiddlers Three and Saraband) travel back further than a hundred years.
The above list of eight period films has a curious clustering of films: between 1944 and 1949, Ealing made more period films than at any other stage in the studio’s existence. It is tempting to link that to the alleged late WW2 preference for entertainment films rather than the realistic war-centred films that Ealing had made their own. Indeed, the head of Ealing Studios Michael Balcon talked about the ‘dangers in this formation flying’ of relying on the realist cycle of filmmaking and a need for ‘the post-war British film... [to] widen its horizon.’ He dismissed the ‘historical film of the past’ and ‘its puppets in period costume, its zounds, its prithees, and its od’s bodkins’ and believed that a range of new artistic approaches were needed for Ealing (and British cinema) to succeed. (Balcon 1948)
Nicholas Nickleby has to be seen, and understood, in relation to that push for a wider range of Ealing films. It also stands as the most famous adaptation of the selection discussed above, a free adaptation of Charles Dickens’ sprawling serial of Victorian Britain. Of course, I am using the word ‘adaptation’ a lot here, but (upon viewing the film) I realised I have never read the source novel. So, what follows is not directly about fidelity or translation (although both concepts will recur) but more about the film’s status as film.
Perhaps because of that lack of source knowledge (and I’ve deliberately not searched out additional narrative information here) the film is an often frustrating watch, episodic, with a schizophrenic tone that applies across performance, set design and cinematography. In one sense, that narrative structure suits my experience of some of Dickens’ other stories (most of which were serialised fiction, so given episodic structures), but here it works to rob the film of any consistency. Characters appear for a sequence, then never appear again (a suggestion the film was targeting Dickens’ fans); barely glimpsed characters suddenly become key to narrative development (the triple wedding at the end is a strong example of this – the third couple having no place in the preceding events); the more enjoyable performances seem to be stitched together from different films; or the points where the enjoyably claustrophobic, gothic set design of the film abruptly shifts to bright, sunny happy location work.
Despite this, the film does hang together, but it doesn’t necessarily make much sense (though, again, I could level that charge at Dickens’ other writing so I am unsure who to apportion the blame to here). The highlights are not narrative-based, but around aspects of performance and design: as Nicholas, Derek Bond is solid but rarely gives any sense of doing anything other than reacting to plot events; the stand-out performances (though, again, for very different reasons) are evil uncle Ralph Nickleby (Cedric Hardwicke), sister Kate Nickleby (Sally Ann Howes) and Vincent Crummles (Stanley Holloway). Hardwicke is subtle rather than overtly evil, and is able to give the character a murky grey moral status, all the more impressive given that in the final ten minutes his performance has to deliver utter villainy, deepening regret, and unbearable loss. During that busy denouement, there is a time for a confrontation between Hardwicke and Howes, told through a series of tight close-ups that allows both actors to shine. Given Howes is given little to do for much of the film, she makes the most of the scenes she is given (she is equally strong in an earlier scene as the lone woman at a dinner party where she visibly swallows her disgust at being verbally pawed by obnoxious drunk older men). The same could be said for Stanley Holloway, whose appearance in the film lasts all of seven or eight minutes: his is the comic relief, and he plays up to that with great aplomb, giving vent to the character’s theatricality – it is a moment of pure entertainment, a brief pause from the narrative’s hurry to cram in as much of the original plot as possible.
The film also looks good, in some places offering strong black and white compositions that sell the darker, gothic nature of the piece. The sets of Dotheboys Hall, the ‘school’ where Nicholas goes to work, are draped in shadow, from which the noxious owners emerge and browbeat their charges. Perhaps because of the period nature, much of the film is studio-bound, but the filmmakers use that to their advantage, giving much of the Victorian design a cramped, gloomy feel. That does, however, mean that when the film does switch to outdoor filming, the difference can feel abrupt: as mentioned, whenever the film cuts to the Nickleby’s seemingly idyllic cottage life it pulls you out of that darker Victorian world into something more clean and light-hearted. While an argument could be made that this shift in tone also represents a narrative shift (it is the first time Nicholas and his family are together and happy), the two pieces of the film still feel too distant, too distinct from each other.
So, this is a film of interesting parts, but one that is also somewhat disappointing when taken as a whole. As always when watching this Ealing films, I'm reminded of Charles Barr's statement that Ealing Studios' style of cinema was 'profoundly empirical and naturalistic,' more at home 'with the solidly realistic, not the abstract or stylised' (Barr, 77) Given Dickens' preference for the realistic, and the naturalistic, he would seem a natural author for Ealing's attempt at period adaptation. Given the parallel success of David Lean's Dickens' adaptations, and the elements that work well here, it is a shame that Ealing did not attempt to adapt this author again.