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Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The (1947)


Main image of Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The (1947)
35mm, black and white, 108 mins
DirectorAlberto Cavalcanti
Production CompanyEaling Studios
ProducerMichael Balcon
ScreenplayJohn Dighton
Original NovelCharles Dickens
Director of PhotographyGordon Dines

Cast: Cedric Hardwicke (Ralph Nickleby); Derek Bond (Nicholas Nickleby); Sally Ann Howes (Kate Nickleby); Bernard Miles (Newman Noggs); Sybil Thorndike (Mrs. Squeers)

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The adventures of Nicholas Nickleby who is put in the care of his brutal uncle after his parents' death, and finds himself confronted with injustice at every turn.

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The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947) was Alberto Cavalcanti's last film for Ealing Studios and was released just after David Lean's well-received adaptation of Dickens' less complicated novel Great Expectations (1947).

With its somewhat episodic storyline, Nicholas Nickleby certainly poses some difficult challenges for a filmmaker looking to conflate a seven hundred page novel into a clear visual narrative. Perhaps it is unsurprising to find that many contemporary critics found the film too pacey and decidedly unfocused, complaining of the rapid movement between events and characters and the lack of a definable moral or theme. However, looking again at Cavalcanti's film some of the contemporary responses seem harsh. There are suggestions of a neo-realist approach to the direction that gives some scenes, especially those at Dotheboys Hall, a ferocity unmatched by other Dickens' adaptations of that era.

Derek Bond as Nicholas displays an over-earnestness that seems appropriate for the essentially moral nature of the quintessential Dickensian hero. Other performances are more memorable, at other times almost odd - Cyril Fletcher as Mantalini, Alfred Drayton a cruelly brutal Squeers and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the villainous usurer Ralph Nickleby, into whose hands Nicholas and his mother and sister fall on his father's death. The film's best moments occur in the early sequences, showing life at Dotheboys Hall; but after Nicholas has escaped the school with Smike (Aubrey Woods) and joined the theatrical family the Crummles (Stanley Holloway and Vera Pearce), the narrative loses much of its drive.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is the only British film version of Dickens' novel, although there are several versions for television - notably Channel 4's presentation of Trevor Nunn's celebrated Royal Shakespeare Company stage adaptation (1982). There have been several US versions, including the recent Nicholas Nickleby (US, d. Doug McGrath, 2002), with an almost exclusively British cast including Charlie Hunnam, Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent and Tom Courtenay.

David Parker

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Video Clips
1. A family tragedy (2:33)
2. Squeers at work (2:43)
3. The escape (2:26)
4. Defending Kate (2:15)
Behind the scenes stills
Production stills
Publicity materials
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The (1982)
Balcon, Jill (1925-2009)
Banes, Lionel (1904-1996)
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
Hardwicke, Sir Cedric (1893-1964)
Holloway, Stanley (1890-1982)
Miles, Bernard (1907-1991)
Norman, Leslie (1911-1993)
Relph, Michael (1915-2004)
Thorndike, Sybil (1882-1976)
Dickens on Film