The Hero’s Journey in “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens

Poor little Nell Trent, sweet thing. At 13, she is the soul of innocence as she keeps house for her grandfather in dangerous, dark London of 1839, a ray of sunshine on the bleak and seedy streets. Her older brother, Fred, who mistakenly thinks she will inherit a fortune accumulated by a miserly man, already plans to marry her off to his pal. But he is wrong: white-haired Grandpa is a compulsive gambler who stays out all night, leaving Nell sleeping in the living quarters above his curio shop, while he regularly loses the money he has borrowed from Daniel Quilp. Eventually, the mean and lecherous Quilp will take ownership of Grandfather’s store. And so begins Charles Dickens’s “The Old Curiosity Shop” filmed in Ireland.

Unlike the book, this production includes a conflagration when the set depicting London is set afire and burned down. The sterling British cast features Sally Walsh as Little Nell, Tom Courtenay as Quilp and Peter Ustinov as the gambling grandfather. The vastly versatile Ustinov has two Oscars (for “Spartacus” and “Topkapi”), three Emmys, a Grammy (for his narration of “Peter and the Wolf”), honorary degrees (including one from Georgetown University) and a knighthood awarded by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990. In 1988, he was elected to the French Academy; in 1992 he was installed as chancellor of Durham University in England; in 1993, he was awarded the German Cultural Prize. Multilingual, he is an actor, playwright, comedian and mimic, author, novelist and columnist, a legendary raconteur and a devout internationalist. Ustinov had finished six weeks of filming for the Disney production when he spoke from his home in Switzerland about “The Old Curiosity Shop.”

Unlike most of Dickens’s works, it is a tragic and often melodramatic story, following Nell and her grandfather as they flee into a world where evil takes many shapes, curiosities themselves. Not all fans of Dickens have liked the book. “I think his social criticism is sometimes not regarded with the same intensity as his sentimentality,” said Ustinov. The actor changed his view of Grandfather as the production continued. “I accepted to play the part thinking, He’s an old fool, this man. He’s sentimental with the girl, but he’s really insincere.’ But I played an old man who was everyone’s grandfather, but who was obsessed with gambling. He does a mea culpa, which is very deeply felt, at the end. One feels that he’s full of remorse, but he can’t convince you that he’s telling the truth. It’s a terrible thing to be in the grips of a vice.” Ustinov gave a wristwatch to 15-year-old Walsh, who played his granddaughter, but was asleep when she came round to thank him. “She dropped me a letter that said if I should want the watch back, to let her know, so I could pawn it,” he joked.

At 74, he continued to work. He appeared in “Lorenzo’s Oil” (1993), stages one-man shows, and adapted one of his novels, “The Old Man and Mr. Smith,” for the screen. Perhaps because Ustinov was such an international sort — born in London, the only child of a German father and French mother, both with Russian roots — he had always been highly regarded on the continent. He spoke and wrote in eight languages and was a columnist for The European, a weekly newspaper. Although he was educated in England and had a British passport, he said he sold 10 times as many books in Germany as he did in England. Ustinov was also a traveling spokesman for UNICEF and was president of the World Federalists, an organization “of people who are not really starry-eyed idealists, but who know that independence is no longer as important as interdependence.”