I thought of titling this review "Don't Make Claude Angry. You Wouldn't Like Him When He's Angry."
But that's a little long for a post title.
I must say this is one of the finest Dickens feature film adaptations I've ever seen, and I've seen a few. The look, the atmosphere, the actors hit all the right notes. The story, for the most part, was very well adapted.
(Major spoilers ahead!)
The adapters took the easy route, going with Jasper as the murderer. They also made Datchery into Neville Landless in disguise -- an option I've never much cared for, for various reasons. I have no idea what Dickens had in mind for that part of the story; if that's what he wanted, he probably could have made it work, because, well, he was Dickens. But not knowing what he intended, I don't much like the idea. That said, Douglass Montgomery, who plays Neville, actually makes a pretty convincing old man.
That leads me to make an observation about the cast. Have you ever noticed, in some of the older Dickens adaptations, how many of the actors look more distinctive than actors do now? Maybe it's just me, but I really think they do. Montgomery has a long, long face that's mostly eyebrows and chin (which, fortunately, they were able to hide with a big white beard for his Datchery scenes). E. E. Clive, a magnificent Sapsea, has a nose like a particularly steep ski slope, and the director (Stuart Walker) has a mischievous habit of shooting him from a low angle so that said nose looks about six miles long. Walter Kingsbury as Grewgious looks like a walking corpse wearing a piece of shag carpeting on its head. I'm not slamming them -- quite the contrary. Their looks make them all the more fascinating to watch. These are people that I think Dickens would have cast if he'd been adapting his own story. They look like people from a Dickens novel.
They don't just look the parts, either. There are some real standouts in this cast. Heather Angel -- a name Dickens himself might have used if girls had been named "Heather" in his day, it strikes me -- has the difficult task of bringing the dreadfully named Rosa Bud to life. Like Lysette Anthony as Florence Dombey, she plays one of Dickens's less popular heroines beautifully, making childish Rosa a positively delightful girl. She manages to be spoiled and cute and charming without ever wanting to make you wring her neck, a remarkable achievement. David Manners is quite likable as breezy young Edwin. And young Deputy, of all people, is a real standout as played by George Ernest, a young lad who makes him just as obnoxious a little urchin as he should be. No cloying child actors here, thank you very much! Montgomery and Valerie Hobson as Neville and Helena are just okay, but the supporting cast is strong all through and backs up the leads in style.
But as I said yesterday, there's no question who's the star here.
Rains gives as fine a performance as I've ever seen from him. His range
of emotion is spectacular: He does the brooding and menacing stuff with
panache, but then in his moments of remorse and anguish over his crime,
he could rip your heart in half. There's one scene where, in an
opium-induced nightmare, he reenacts the murder, going from cold
satisfaction to agony to fury all in the space of a few moments. If there were no other reason to watch this film, Rains would be reason enough.
But how did they manage to finish Dickens's famously unfinished story? Very well, as a matter of fact. The screenwriters came up with quite a creditable finish, keeping it short and simple and maintaining the flow nicely. (Given the amount of flak Dickens takes over his depictions of women, though, I did find it rather funny that Rosa and Helena both drop completely out of the film from the moment the adapters take over the story until the very last moment.) Just the last scene didn't quite work for me; given the darkness that had gone before, the abrupt switch to perfect sweetness and light rang false. I like happy endings, but I would have liked to see this one tempered a bit, perhaps with someone -- Helena, probably -- sparing a wistful thought or two for Edwin.