I’m a bad former English major. I’m not a fan of Dickens. Not a fan of reading his work, at least. I find it hard to slog through his novels (though I did enjoy Great Expectations), so I don’t read most of his works, and I haven’t read The Old Curiosity Shop. This recap will, therefore, be entirely based on what’s on screen, not what’s in the book or how the book translates to the screen. I’m not sure I can promise the same for Great Expectations when that airs, but we’ll see how that goes when we get there.
Victorian London is murky and miserable. A young girl carefully makes her way through one of the rougher parts, passing gangs of people just randomly beating on each other. She’s Nell, our little heroine. Glancing around cautiously, she moves through the streets. She goes to a moneylender, I suppose, played by Toby Jones, who counts out some money for her and tells her she expects her grandfather to show him a return on his investments soon. He offers to see her home (in a rather slimy way), but she tells him she’s fine on her own.
Back outside she goes, back into the dark, murky streets, where she’s eventually followed by someone—a boy about her own age, whom she recognizes as her friend, Kit. He addresses her as “miss” and walks her home. She thanks him, saying she feels safer walking home with him. She was sent out on an urgent errand by her grandfather.
The two approach The Curiosity Shop, where Nell knocks on the door, which is opened by her grandfather, Derek Jacobi, who scolds her for taking so long and worrying him. Well, why didn’t you go yourself, grandpa? Seems like you have no trouble getting from Point A to Point B and back. He thanks Kit for seeing her home but won’t let him stay for supper, despite Nell’s protestations. Once Kit’s gone, grandpa asks Nell if she was successful. She hands over the cash and he kisses her on the forehead and heads out into the night. Toby Jones watches him pass from a nearby doorway and follows him to a gambling den, where he watches grandpa sit down to a card game.
In a nicer part of town, two older ladies are lecturing a younger matron about husbands and how she should better handle her own. The young woman’s married to Daniel Quilp, whom one of the older ladies—her mother—loathes. Furthermore, mom knows her daughter’s too whimpy to stand up to him. She keeps ranting until Quilp himself comes in and passive aggressively scolds his wife for having a neighbor over. He sends mom off to bed, and though she tries to stand her ground, he yells her out of the room. Quilp, by the way, is Toby Jones, and his wife’s terrified of him. He charmingly tells her he’ll bite her if she ever listens to her mom and her mom’s friend again. Lovely.
Grandpa arrives home and tells Nell he’s going to need her help again on an errand the following morning.
Back to Quilp’s she goes; he’s clearly some kind of moneylender, and I’m sure grandpa’s in serious debt with this man. Quilp asks Nell what her grandfather keeps doing with all the cash and she honestly says she doesn’t know. Quilp creepily tells her she’s looking pretty, and then asks her how she’d like to be his wife. Nell, by the way, is about 14 years old, from what I understand. She reminds him that he already has a wife and he says his wife’ll be dead someday soon, and Nell will be just the proper age for him in a couple of years. Shudder.
Quilp goes back about his business and asks Nell to reassure him he’ll get paid back at some point. She can’t really promise that, so Quilp takes her on an errand of his own—showing her the inside of a debtor’s prison, so she’ll know what’s in store for her and her grandpa if they can’t pay back grandpa’s debts. What a charming man! Desperate people reach out of the cells, crying out and clawing at Nell as she tries to hurry past.
At the shop, a well-dressed young man is asking grandpa to see Nell—she’s his sister, apparently. Grandfather scolds the young man for behaving scandalously and the brother pushes past grandpa into the shop. His friend, Swiveller, follows him inside. Swiveller says they should make up and Brother suggests grandpa give him some cash, which he’s allegedly saving up for Nell. Man, Brother hasn’t been around much lately, has he? He clearly doesn’t know what grandpa’s doing with the cash. Nell arrives and gives Brother a name—Freddie—and he asks how she’s doing before asking her to lend him a shilling. Having ascertained that Nell’s alive and been denied his loan, Freddie and Swiveller leave. Quilp asks for a moment alone with grandpa and has him sign a bill of sale that puts the shop in Quilp’s hands if he can’t pay back his loans double or triple (presumably at Quilp’s pleasure). Grandpa refuses to sign, so he won’t get his loan for the day. Quilp goes to leave, pausing just long enough in the doorway for Grandpa to reconsider, and reconsider he does, signing over everything he owns, lock, stock and barrel. Idiot.
Chez Quilp, Mom comes across the Missus, Betsey, slumped in a chair, exhausted. Quilp sends his exhausted wife to fetch breakfast. I guess this scene exists just in case we were unsure that Quilp is a mean, mean man. It also appears to be confusingly out of order, because the Missus is wearing the same dress as the dinner scene, suggesting this is early the following morning, but we’ve already seen Quilp out and about his business.
Freddie and Swiveller wander the city, avoiding the areas where they’ve already destroyed their credit. Freddie tells Swiveller he has a plan to marry Swiveller off to Nell in a couple of years, enabling Swiveller to inherit everything when grandpa dies. Two years! How’re you going to live until then? Freddie catches sight of a pregnant woman coming his way and hastens away, so we know what the story is there.
Quilp shows up at the shop with some lawyer and his document to find Nell and Kit playing with a bird. They go up to see grandpa and tell him the shop’s theirs now. Grandpa freaks and asks where he and Nell will go, but all Quilp’s willing to offer is to take Nell as his serving maid. Even grandpa knows better than to agree to that and he fiercely tells Quilp that Nell’s not for sale.
Nell comes back with some oysters for grandpa, which Quilp goes ahead and helps himself to, as his lawyer, Brass, acts super, super creepy. Nell goes to her grandfather and tells him they should run away to the countryside. Much as they love the shop, she knows that running off to live like beggars is better than being tossed in debtors’ prison.
Later, as Brass and Quilp sleep downstairs, Nell and grandpa steal away, taking a key off of Quilp and a locket from under the floorboards before they go. Nell also takes her pet bird.
The streets are quiet, so it must be very late indeed. The next morning, Kit comes out of his home to find Nell’s bird and a letter telling him what’s up.
At the shop, Quilp runs around trying to find Nell. He wakes Brass and asks where Nell and grandpa are, just as Dick Swiveller shows up with flowers to start a-wooing. Quilp says she’s gone and demands to know where Freddie is. Dick tells him Freddie’s flown to France and figures grandpa had a hidden stash of money he ran off with. Brass finds the underfloor hiding place, which is filled with nothing but debt slips. Quilp’s pissed that his money’s just been gambled away, although I have no idea why he seems surprised. He saw the man gambling and he was constantly borrowing money—what did he think was happening? He clearly wasn’t putting it into his business or a higher standard of living! Quilp vows revenge because apparently he has absolutely nothing better to do. I mean, he could hand this matter over to the authorities, sell the shop and contents and recoup his debts and get back to his business and his life, but what would be the fun in that?
On the road to the countryside, grandpa observes that Nell looks tired, but she says she’s fine. Grandpa gives her charge of the last of their money and tells her not to give it back to him under any circumstances. She promises to keep it and later hides the coins in the hem of her dress. Her grandfather also hands over her mother’s locket, which she’s delighted to receive. He smiles and tells her it’ll remind her of home and everything that’s good in the world.
Dick, for some reason, is now hanging out with Quilp, despite needing a drink first thing in the morning. Quilp’s got some kind of a job for him, which I’m sure will be wholesome and aboveboard. Quilp wants Dick to keep an eye on his business and dealings with Brass while Quilp goes and finds Nell. Dick is apparently utterly and completely brainless, because even though he heard Quilp say that the old man clearly has nothing but debts, he’s still under the impression Nell’s going to inherit something.
The two men go into a sad-looking place to find a fierce woman—Sally Brass, presumably Mr. Brass’s wife. Sally doesn’t mess around, and she’s soon revealed to be Brass’s sister, and she’s pissed to hear that Dick’s going to be Brass’s new clerk. Sally’s also pissed to hear that Dick’s going to be taking over her chair, but they can’t lose Quilp’s business, so Dick’s in and Sally’s put out. Outside, Quilp tells Brass to keep an eye on Dick, in case he can help lead them to Nell through Freddie.
The Brass’ housemaid comes into the office and asks Dick to attend to a man who’s come about some sort of lodgings. Dick’s unwilling to do so, but he has no choice, so he shows the guy the rooms, jacking up the prices considerably. The guy, who’s all cagey and won’t even give his name, agrees right away.
Mysterious Lodger (ML) goes to the Curiosity Shop and asks after the previous owner. Quilp asks what he wants to know but the man won’t say. Quilp’s soon distracted by the sight of Kit and the birds, which Kit is oddly taking for a walk; when Kit runs away, Quilp follows him home and threatens his baby brother until Kit accidentally indicates the letter. Quilp reads it and cackles with glee, as bad guys are wont to do.
Brass returns home to find Sally peeping on the lodger, whom she doesn’t trust. A minute later, there’s a squawk from downstairs and an honest-to-God pirate with a bird on his shoulder and everything comes up the stairs and is shown into ML’s room. ML asks if he has news of where “they” are and Sally goes back to her peeping. That pirate, sadly, will never reappear or be explained.
Nell and grandpa arrive in a town somewhere and decide to rest for the night.
Quilp, meanwhile, is on the road in a carriage, galloping to…wherever.
Nell and grandpa are in an inn, where of course there’s gambling going on, and grandpa can barely keep his eyes off the game. Like any degenerate gambler, he moans that he could have had his luck turn if he’d just had one more day. He asks how much money they have left, and later on that night, he goes into Nell’s room and steals it. Nell wakes but says and does nothing. Grandpa goes downstairs and starts gambling, unknowingly watched by Nell.
The following morning, Quilp arrives in the very town where Nell and grandpa are staying. What, is Nell using Foursquare or something? How’d she know exactly where she was going and why would she put it in a letter when she and her grandfather were trying to flee Quilp? What a completely idiotic thing to do. She spots Quilp from the window of her room at the inn, grabs her dress and goes to find her grandpa. Together, they flee, again. Let’s hope this time she doesn’t leave a bunch of clues as to where they’re going.
Back on the road in the countryside, they come across Zoe Wanamaker having a very fancy tea out in the middle of nowhere. She’s got more gin than tea in that pot and invites Nell and grandpa to join her.
Back at the inn, Quilp takes a huge bite out of a hard-boiled egg (repulsive eating seems to be a theme in this story, for some reason) and quizzes the innkeeper about his former guests. Innkeeper fortunately knows almost nothing, so Quilp’s back on the road again.
Zoe serves up a ton of food to Nell and grandpa and introduces herself as Mrs. Jarley, owner of a waxworks. She thinks quite a bit about her world-famous waxworks. Nell and grandpa admit that they’d love to see it, but they’re pretty poor at the moment. Mrs. Jarley invites them to travel with her for a bit and they’ll see about finding Nell a job.
At the Brass house, Dick watches from a staircase while Sally needlessly abuses the poor maid. We get it, Sally’s a huge bitch.
ML, meanwhile, has tracked down Kit and tells him he thinks he’s tracked Nell and grandpa to the West Country, and he’d like Kit to accompany him there, because he’s pretty sure grandpa won’t welcome him, but they’ll be happy to see Kit. Kit’s mom, naturally, doesn’t want to send her son off with a perfect stranger, so ML spills his story. And no, we don’t get to hear it.
Nell’s new job is acting as a presenter for the waxworks show, which she seems to do quite well. Horribly, though, Mrs. J. hands the wages over to grandpa, who, to his credit, does seem reluctant to take them. For about ten seconds. And of course he gambles it all away.The man he’s playing against—hey, he’s from Law and Order UK!—suggests he steal Mrs. J’s money to keep playing. Nell overhears all this, because she seems to overhear everything.
Grandpa finds Nell outside whatever hellhole he was playing cards in and asks her if there’s something bothering her. She tells him she had some money stolen from her at the inn and grandpa says they’ll probably find it again. She says she dreamed of someone in a room robbing sleepers of their gold. Grandpa looks wracked with guilt, but you know it won’t stop him. She tells him they have to move on.
By the time ML and Kit find Mrs. J, Nell and grandpa are gone, having flown in the night just like they always do. ML asks why they should do so and Mrs. J says she doesn’t know and worries about the girl. Quilp, like a devil in a play, suddenly appears from backstage to say grandpa was a liar and a thief. ML asks Quilp what he’s doing there and Quilp says he’s there for the same reason ML is. Quilp thinks grandpa must be in debt to ML too, but that’s clearly not the case, and ML obviously hates Quilp. Quilp repeats the old man’s a liar and a thief and the girl’s no better, prompting Kit to step up and threaten to beat Quilp for besmirching the name of dear, dear Nell. ML asks Quilp if he knows where Nell and grandpa are but Quilp doesn’t know. ML and Mrs. J tell Quilp to get lost and he does, but not before promising to track Nell and grandpa down no matter what it takes. Why’s he so obsessed with finding these two? He’s got the shop, which he can sell to help recoup the debt. Is he really that into Nell? Because that’s just gross and creepy. Or is he yet another Dickens character with murky motivations and little depth? Because there are a lot of those in the Dickens stories, especially when it comes to the bad guys.
Nell and grandpa are out in the rain, homeless, with no food. Grandpa says he can’t walk any further, but they don’t know anybody where they are and have no money for lodgings. Grandpa tells her she’ll have to beg for some food and shelter for them. The idea horrifies her, as it would just about anybody, but she does it, while grandpa sits on his ass and looks guilty. I feel little pity for him.
Brass and Sally have been summoned to the Quilp household, because a hat that looks like Quilp’s has been found floating in the river near his countinghouse. Apparently Quilp flew the coop without telling anyone. Brass sets about getting ready to announce Quilp’s death so they can start to collect on his life insurance immediately. But then Quilp suddenly appears—seriously, can he apparate? How does he keep showing up and just the right moment?
Quilp sits down with the Brasses and tells them about Kit’s and ML’s new friendship, which he doesn’t approve of in the least. Quilp hates Kit, and therefore hates ML. Brass sucks up all over the place until Sally shuts him up. Quilp asks them to find some way to keep Kit away from ML, and he’ll pay them handsomely for it. The two of them awkwardly take their leave.
Nell begs, but not very well, because she’s clearly sick. She collapses momentarily into the dirty street but finally gets back onto her feet and returns to her grandfather. He urges her to get back out there and uses some emotional blackmail in a really horrible way, telling her he’s desperate and he needs money to exist, like she doesn’t really factor in here at all. Nell goes back out and begs, weeping piteously. Nobody cares. Honestly—isn’t there a church or something they can go to? This seems like a pretty substantial town. It would at least get them out of the rain. Nell eventually faints dead away into the street and that gets grandpa back on his feet. He finally starts to beg himself—for help, and a passing reverend (ah ha!) stops his carriage and helps them in.
Brass has summoned Kit to his office and pretends to be all friendly with the kid while Dick pretends to work and observes the scene. Brass offers to give Kit’s widowed mother some work around the house, and Kit accepts, because why wouldn’t he? Brass is summoned away by Sally and Kit tells Dick he’s been wrong about Brass, because he seems like a nice, generous man. “Does he?” says Dick. Heh. Dick does not, I notice, bother to warn the kid, though. Brass and Sally return to the office and send Kit on his way. Once he’s gone, they act out a totally fake scene in which Brass claims to have misplaced a fiver. The two suggest it could be the kid, and then start to look suspiciously at Dick, sending him running after Kit to accuse him of theft himself. Dick’s rather aptly named, isn’t he?
The reverend carries Nell into a hospital or something, followed by grandpa.
Kit’s back at Brass’s, being searched by Brass while Sally and Quilp look on. Naturally, no five pounds is found, until they look underneath the kid’s hat, which Brass had rather ostentatiously grabbed off the kid’s head earlier. The note is found in it and Kit freaks out while Quilp sends Dick to fetch the constable. Kit’s carted off to jail while ML calls after him that he’ll get this all sorted out. Dick watches from one of the windows, looking a bit guilty.
Later, Quilp and the Brasses celebrate having just gotten a 12-year-old locked up. Young Kit is tossed into a jail cell. Dick is downstairs playing cards and making friends with the maid, whom he calls the Marchioness, which she loves, because it sounds all dignified and such. He gently pumps her for information and March tells him she’s managed to procure her mistress’s spare key. She also tells him all about the plot against young Kit.
Nell wakes in an actual bed somewhere, just in time to see her grandfather take off into the snowy countryside. Like an idiot, she follows him, dressed only in a nightgown. Jesus, Nell, maybe he’s just out for a walk or something. Grab a shawl, at least! Oh, but this is all so she can see her grandfather gamble away her mother’s locket. Dear God, this man’s beyond redemption now. He almost gets her killed and now he’s taken the only thing that mattered to her to feed his habit. And yes, yes, I know this is an addiction and addictions can’t just be discarded, but still. Grandpa looks up and sees her run off back to the reverend’s.
Nell’s back in bed, passed out, with grandpa at her side. Rev says she’s tired herself out but grandpa thinks this is more of a broken heart scenario. Rev urges him to repent, but I think it’s a bit late for that.
Dick’s told ML the story of Kit, and ML’s confronting Brass and Sally with their misdeeds. Sally tells Brass to keep his trap shut. A constable’s there, asking about this Quilp guy who’s apparently involved as well, and Sally points out that this is all just the word of a bunch of supposedly respectable people against some workhouse skivvy. So March grabs for a ledger on Brass’s desk and tells them he writes down every bad thing he’s ever done in it. Seriously? SERIOUSLY? Who the hell would do that? What a completely stupid plot device. ML shows the ledger to the sergeant and Brass starts talking deal. He rolls over on Quilp, despite Sally’s protestations, and a mob with actual torches goes out to find the man. Really? Torches? A lynch mob? For this one guy?
Quilp’s wife runs to warn him, and how she found out before Quilp did is anyone’s guess. His wife bleats and whines and is generally pointless so he shoves her out of the way, grabs a few things, and flees by attempting to walk across the frozen river. His wife keeps getting in the way, whining that she’s sure there’s good in him, but she’s wrong about that, and he sneers that he never married her for love. So, what, then? Does she have money? Explain, show! Explain! Then of course the ice cracks and he falls through and she stands there and watches him drown, along with his coins and banknotes and necklaces. Well, ok then.
Kit is finally released from jail, into the loving custody of ML, who tells him he knows where Nell and grandpa are. Kit goes home long enough to reassure his worried mother he’s still alive, and she thanks ML for returning her son to her.
In her sickbed, Nell coughs and shakes with fever while grandpa holds her hand. ML and Kit arrive and the Rev tells them Nell’s in a bad way. Grandpa’s shocked to see Kit, and even more so to see ML, who’s grandpa’s son. ML begs for forgiveness for leaving his father, but grandfather embraces him quickly and says it’s all good now. Except for the fact that Nell’s dying. Nell gets with it just long enough to see Kit and to be introduced to her father, who kneels at her side and tells her all will be well. Nell, because she’s just so good, says she’s pleased to see her dad and she forgives her grandfather for, well, killing her, basically. Grandpa weeps and apologizes and she says it’s ok, and then she dies. And I feel strangely unaffected by all this. Maybe because not a single one of these people actually seemed real to me. They were paper doll characters. Nell was Good. Grandfather was, well, kinda useless. Brass and Quilp were Bad. Hardly anything anybody did seemed to have real motivation or purpose. And the story was kind of boring. I can see why this is a Dickens story that’s not filmed often. It’s not one of his best.
So, we sum up by seeing Dick marry March, and suddenly it looks like they’re both all respectably middle class, although I was under the impression he was pretty badly in debt. And grandpa has the curiosity shop back and Kit’s got the birds, and that’s it. I guess Freddie just stayed in France or whatever and we were never meant to care much about him at all. No idea what happened to Mrs. Quilp or the Brasses.
So, that’s that. Here’s hoping the next Dickens adaptation will be better. Hopefully at least they’ll have better source material to work with.