Writer-director Douglas McGrath (Emma) brings us a cleverly pared-down but potent version of Charles Dickens’ massive and often darkly humorous study of Victorian corruption, Nicholas Nickleby (2002). The extraordinary cast includes Christopher Plummer as Nicholas’ evil financier uncle; Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson as the loathsome Mr. and Mrs. Squeers; and, more brightly, Tom Courtenay, Anne Hathaway, Jamie Bell, Timothy Spall, Romola Garai, and Charlie Hunnam as Nicholas. Also highlighted by a score from Rachel Portman, available on this Twilight Time release as an isolated track.
I do not envy any filmmaker who takes on the arduous task of adapting a classic piece of literature and make a feature film out of the material. While some classics are relatively easy, some stories boggle the mind as to where to even begin let alone manage numerous characters and plot arcs. This is certainly the case with Charles Dickens' dark comedy of Victorian corruption 'Nicholas Nickleby.' Written and Directed by Douglas McGrath and starring Charlie Hunnam, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent and Anne Hathaway, this adaptation of the esteemed classic novel may feel a bit rushed at times, but overall is a grand and darkly humorous success.
After the death of his father the young Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam), his mother (Stella Gonet) and sister Kate (Romola Garai) are left broke and penniless. Without any true abilities of their own or a means of income to fall back upon, the good-natured Nickleby family are left to the graces of their rich and successful uncle Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer). Where Nicholas and his mother and sister were expecting mercy and a bit of familial charity, Ralph will have nothing of it. Rather than simply handing over anything from his considerable fortune, Ralph would rather have his brother's family be made into something useful. A seemingly benevolent gesture quickly turns into misfortune for Nicholas and his family.
Under the pretense of taking on an important teaching post, Nicholas learns he's the tool of the cruel headmaster Mr. Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his wife the sinister Mrs. Squeers. When the pair aren't busy beating their students into submission, they're taking out their anger and frustrations upon the crippled boy Smike (Jamie Bell) - to the dislike of the honest and amiable Nicholas. When Nicholas frees Smike and himself in a fit of anger - he begins a journey of self-discovery that will put him on the path of finding a calling, love, and the truth behind his Uncle Ralph's past.
Depending on the particular story you're taking on, reading Dickens can often leave you feeling like you need a roadmap for the plot and a shortcut listing of all the characters and how they're tangentially related to one another. That said, by reading closely and simply paying attention, any plot confusions quickly melt away as Dickens always manages to find a way to satisfyingly tie everything together. Just when you think nothing is making any sense in the thick, densely layered plots and characters all of a sudden it all works out. That's the experience one has when watching 'Nicholas Nickleby.'
Like the novel itself, the film is a balance of light and dark. One moment the story could be full of humor and joy and the next we could be seeing an invalid beaten for simply not wanting to be beaten anymore. Dickens always had an interest in exploring the best and worst tendencies in humanity while always hoping for the best in people. Even though his works aired on the brighter side of human nature, Dickens readily understood that some people are beyond redemption and should be the subject of pity rather than anger. To his credit, filmmaker Douglas McGrath deftly manages all of these aspects of the novel with a playful ease.
As Charlie Hunnam's Nicholas travels England and is exposed to the true nature of the world, his unwavering optimism always manages to shine through. Even when Jamie Bell's Smike is at his lowest, there is a happiness to the friendship that he and Nicholas have established. Through their chance meeting of the theatrical Crummles played wonderfully by Nathan Lane, the pair is able to explore a new area of society where they belong. At the same time, as Romola Garai's Kate is having to deal with Uncle Ralph's despicable schemes to marry her off to a wealthy man to secure a business deal, there is always a sense of hope and optimism.
If there is a gripe to be had with this particular adaptation of 'Nicholas Nickleby' is that at a respectable 132 minute run time, it's entirely too short. Much like Dickens' 'Bleak House,' 'Nicholas Nickleby' is a long and dense novel averaging nearly 1000 pages depending on the printing. There are a lot of character and story arcs that are left out entirely or quickened to make the film's allotted runtime. To that point, this 'Nickleby' really would have worked best as some sort of multi-part miniseries event film rather than a theatrical outing. That isn't to say that this is a bad movie that shortcuts the story, it's just that certain aspects would probably be more satisfying if they'd been given more time to breathe. As it stands, 'Nicholas Nickleby' is a nice and enjoyable film that is sure to please casual Dickens fans if it doesn't win over ardent students of classic literature.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Nicholas Nickleby' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time and is pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc. The disc is housed in a clear standard Blu-ray case and comes with a booklet containing stills from the film as well as an essay by Film Historian Julie Kirgo. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
With a lush and vivid 2.35:1 1080p transfer, 'Nicholas Nickleby' makes a beautiful transition to Blu-ray. With fine film grain present - but not too intrusive or noisy - details are splendidly rendered on the screen. Details like facial features, especially Jim Broadbent's scarred face, come through with terrific clarity. The dark period costuming as well as the impressive production design work also look amazing with this transfer. Colors - when appropriate - are bright, bold and beautiful favoring the warmer tones while also allowing for plenty of natural primary presence and healthy facial features. Black levels are deep and inky allowing for great looking night time and dark scenes to come through with plenty of depth and dimension to the image. All around this is a beautiful looking image that serves the film perfectly.
On the audio side of things, Nicholas Nickleby arrives with a strong English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix as well as a troubled English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix. In general, the stronger audio mix is found with the 2.0 stereo mix. Dialogue sounds rather soft in the 5.1 mix as it likes to favor the background atmospherics making important lines difficult to hear - especially as some of the English accents are intensely thick. Thankfully, that problem fades away in the stereo mix as dialogue is a little better balanced and maintained in the front/center channels. To that point, while sound effects and atmospherics may not be as pronounced in the stereo presentation, they're certainly appreciable and provide a strong sense of imaging and directionality. If I were to score the audio tracks separately I would give the stereo mix a 5/5 with the 5.1 surround mix earning a respectable 4/5. If you favor the 5.1 surround, I would strongly suggest that you set your volume levels higher than you normally would.
Audio Commentary: Director Douglas McGrath flies solo for this outing but does a particularly great job of detailing the various production aspects, the difficulties of adapting such a massive story, as well as shooting with a cast of established performers and several rising stars.
Creating a Classic: The Making of 'Nicholas Nickleby': (SD 29:26) This is a solid and thorough archival bonus feature that covers a lot of material from the cast and crew discussing various aspects of the production.
The Cast on the Cast!: (SD 17:04) Another archival bonus feature from the original DVD, this is a fun and interesting collection of interviews with the cast as they discuss working together.
View on the Set Muti-Angle Feature: (SD 04:02) Comprised of London, The Theater, The Kidnapping, The Proposal, and The Toast showing the raw footage from the various camera angles as well as the behind the scenes set video being shot at the same time.
Original Theatrical Trailer: (HD 2:10)
While this may not be the most complete and thorough adaptation, this 'Nicholas Nickleby' proves to be an enjoyable and earnest endeavor. The cast is fantastic and fans of the book and newcomers alike should have a wonderful time with this film. Twilight Time brings 'Nicholas Nickleby' to Blu-ray in terrific order with a beautiful image transfer, a solid audio mix, as well as a host of great bonus features to pick through. At the end of the day, it's pretty easy to call this one highly recommended.