Every family needs a hero.
I think in 50 or 100 hundred years, divorced from questions about “popular culture,” Stephen King will be considered the Dickens of our time. Both authors share a body of work that straddles huge social upheaval (the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the 60s Counter-Culture, respectively). Both also write about a location they are intimately familiar with, either London or Maine, and about people that you could meet on the street in those places. Both are also known more for their prolificacy and ability to tell captivating stories than they are for writing beautiful sentences. Most importantly, for our purposes, it’s really difficult to make a decent movie from one of their novels. Though both have their exceptions, for the most part Dickens and King share a string of so-so adaptations of their sprawling books. Nicholas Nickleby, the 2002 adaptation of Dickens’ third novel, is a perfect example. It’s a decent adaptation, but lacks the spark that would make it worthy of Dickens’ fame.
Nicholas Nicklby (Charlie Hunnam, Pacific Rim) is a young man with everything, until his father dies unexpectedly. This threatens to send him to the poor house with his mother and sister. Instead, the family seeks help from their Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) in London. But Uncle Ralph cares more about profit than family, so he intends to exploit the family after splitting them up. Nicholas has a series of adventures as he tries to challenge his uncle and save his mother and sister.
Writer/director Douglas McGrath, who previously helmed the adaptation of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow, has a lot of tools at his disposal. The first is that he’s a top-notch writer (he also provided the script for Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway). He does a serious job trimming down Dickens’ novel (which, to continue the comparison, is about the size of King’s Under the Dome). Where Dickens’ novel digresses, spending a lot of time in different locales exploring the life of different people, McGrath’s Nicholas is a relatively straightforward affair. Though still somewhat episodic, the film moves rather quickly through the individual episodes of the novel. Nicholas goes to a terrible school, falls in with an acting troupe, meets a young artist, all before the final plot where Nicholas must defend his sister’s honor from a lecherous old man. The film also does a smart job of keeping all of Dickens’ twists and revelations in the final act.
The other major thing McGrath has going for him is an all-star cast. Charlie Hunnam was still a few years from his break-out on Sons of Anarchy, and Anne Hathaway was still years from shedding her Disney-fied image, but both are credible as their younger characters. Christopher Plummer excels at roles like the evil Uncle Ralph, but the rest of the cast is just as impressive and reads like a who’s-who of British talent. Jim Broadbent, Jamie Bell, Alan Cumming, and Timothy Spall, not to mention Nathan Lane (who, of course, isn’t British). It’s a film that’s worth watching just to watch a top-notch cast strut their stuff.
Twilight Time recognizes the excellence of this cast and matches it with this Blu-ray release. The film’s 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is solid. It could use a full-blown remaster because there’s a bit of dust and dirt in the frame. But that’s a small complaint when judged against a transfer that is otherwise sharp and detailed, with a good grain structure and appropriate colors. There are no compression artifacts or other problems. The film’s DTS-HD 5.1 surround track is also pretty good. Dialogue is clean and clear, while the film’s score comes out well-balanced and pretty dynamic. The audio for the film isn’t the most aggressive, but for what’s here the track does fine. There’s also a stereo option.
Extras start with a commentary by McGrath, who is full of great stories about adapting the novel, shooting the film, and working with the excellent cast. The film’s score is presented in an isolated audio track as well. Then we get a pair of featurettes that talk to the cast and crew about the film in general and then the cast specifically. There’s also a few minutes of raw footage from the set, as well as the film’s trailer. A booklet with some stills and an essay by Julie Kirgo is included as well.
The main issue with Nicholas Nickleby is that it never quite gets over the fact that it’s not the novel. Most films, even two hour ones, tend to be story driven, and those stories tend to be about a goal. The film version of Nicholas Nickleby conforms to that pattern – Nicholas’ goal is to reunite with his mother and sister, and to save their honor. Though the film offers a few digression, it sticks pretty solidly to that plan. In contrast, the novel is less concerned with the goal and more with the journey that brings Nicholas there. In the book he’s still trying to save his sister, but Dickens is more willing to stop and linger at the various places Nicholas ends up. This adds layers of complexity and atmosphere to the novel that the film just can’t hope to capture in two hours. That’s a pretty huge difference between films and novels in general, but it leaves the experience of watching Nicholas Nickleby a bit empty.
Nicholas Nickleby will almost certainly appeal to fans of the actors and those who are casual fans of Dickens’ books. Hardcore fans of his novels might not appreciate the film’s trimming of narrative, and casual viewers might not find much to grab them in the story. But fans should enjoy this Blu-ray release, which offers a strong audiovisual presentation and some fine extras.