Dickens fans need not worry, as they will find a faithful representation of the story here. They will also get the special treat of seeing Bentley’s sets, painstaking recreations of the original publication illustrations by Cattermole. Little Nell and her grandfather live in the Old Curiosity Shop, but in trying to secure Little Nell’s future her grandfather gambles away all of their money and falls foul of the original poison dwarf, moneylender Quilp (a memorable, pantomime villain-like performance by Hay Petrie). They run away and meet a host of colourful countryfolk on the road, with Quilp and a long lost relative in hot pursuit. Look away now if you are unaware of the end, but, as Oscar Wilde is famously reported as saying, “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.” It is an extremely sentimental story which may be too much for a modern audience (or contemporary reader) to stomach, but if you're prepared for the emotional manipulation at the end then it is a very fine adaptation.
Thomas Bentley adapted much of the Dickens canon for the screen in the early twentieth century, but The Old Curiosity Shop is one of the few prints that has not been lost, making it valuable as a piece of history, but not necessarily good as a piece of storytelling. This is the first talkie adaptation of the novel, and it is impossible not to notice the way the film captures that moment in time when talking movies were a new phenomenon. Some performances are charming, others are distractingly over the top and theatrical, making the film as a whole feel really quite creaky and dated.
The DVD is worth getting your hands on, however, not so much for the film itself but for a ten minute silent film found in the bonus features. Wonderful London: Dickens' London dates from 1924 and takes us on a tour of Dickens hotspots in London, before the Artful Dodger, David Copperfield, Fagin, Little Nell, Grandfather, and Quilp all get on a bus together. Delightfully random, the old curious bus trip more than makes up for all the scenery chewing.