Toby Jones puts in a solid performance as the sneering moneylender Daniel Quilp in the latest in a fresh run of Victorian-era literature BBC adaptations. Abusive toward his wife, creepy around pubescent girls and duplicitous as they come, Quilp takes pleasure in profiting from the misfortunes of others. Jones plays the villain admirably.
A respectable, though brief, performance is also turned in by Anna Madeley (Sense & Sensibility), who plays Quilp’s wife. Though Quilp treats her abominably, she is strangely devoted to him, and the viewer pities her for the trap that society has set. Marriage to a villain is still better than no marriage and therefore no income.
Nell Trent (Sophie Vavasseur) is a fresh-faced teenager living with her grandfather, the proprietor of a dusty curio shop, the hidden treasures of which are only hinted at. Grandfather (Derek Jacobi) has a secret darker than the spider-webbed corners of his shop, and the film opens with Nell’s growing awareness that something is wrong with her grandfather.
Grandfather has been borrowing money to finance his card-playing habit, and his luck has been so bad that he forces Nell to visit Quilp in order to get more ready cash for his “investments”. When Quilp comes with his lawyer to cash in on the debt, Nell and Grandfather have little choice but to flee and seek a new life in the countryside. Naturally, it is never that simple to escape a haunted past.
The dark atmosphere that has pervaded London lightens slightly, as the duo encounters a series of characteristically odd Dickensian denizens. Their luck remains dismal, however, as Grandfather is reduced even further in circumstance and still can’t shake his gambling demons.
The tiniest bit of fun comes in with Martin Freeman (the original UK The Office) who plays a two-faced puppeteer, but it is no time at all before Nell realizes that the performing men with their Punch-and-Judy routine are only looking to profit from her and her grandfather’s misfortune.
The action switches back and forth between Nell and those who follow in dogged pursuit. For the most part, the costumes are unremarkable, simple and rustic pieces that neither add to nor detract from the production. (Comically crooked black stovepipe hats do lend to the period’s feel.) Likewise, the camera pays little attention to the scenery or details of dwellings. Nell walks hurriedly down dark steamy alleyways on errands she does not fully understand; Nell and her grandfather make their way slowly through a vaguely green, unremarkable forest lane.
Another drawback to this production is the way peripheral characters receive little treatment and the viewer often has no context for how they fit into the story. Frequently in Charles Dickens’ writing the plots are so convoluted that by the time the characters come together a tightly woven fabric has formed and everything in the tale is revealed as interconnected. In this case, Nell’s other family members enter only briefly, and their backgrounds remain largely a mystery. Though those who meet or know her seem to want to treat her well, Nell’s grandfather pulls her away from the possibility of other human relationships.
Nell remains loyal to her grandfather even as she begins to understand the addiction that grips him. As he recognizes how his gambling habit hurts Nell, he cannot resist the siren call of cards shuffling or dice rolling. Reliant on the kindness of strangers as his funds run out, Grandfather’s addiction allows the tension to build slightly, as the viewer wonders which is the lesser of two evils: to be caught by the pursuing Quilp, or to die in the gutter as a pauper.
The best scene of the film may well be one in which Nell, soaked in the pouring rain, appeals to strangers in an unidentified town, begging for a few coins, so that she and her grandfather may find a bit of food and a place to sleep. The crowd of nondescript strangers eddies and swirls around Nell, who is battered from all directions like a rock in the middle of a strong current, until she succumbs to the force of the water. This is not the end, but perhaps a turning point for Nell’s grandfather. Or perhaps not.
If you’re a fan of the historical-adaptation genre or Dickens in general, my recommendation is: Rent, don’t buy.