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Nicholas Nickleby: Special Edition

It's based on an 800-page tome by a respected British author, it features a plucky young hero, and it's full of costumes and fantastic coincidences, but Nicholas Nickleby is no Harry Potter. Nope — it's better. Of course, comparing two tales as different as these is as futile as the old apples-and-oranges bit, but the folks in charge of adapting J.K. Rowling's wizarding stories for the big screen could certainly do a lot worse than looking to Douglas McGrath's sure-handed version of Charles Dickens' epic Victorian novel as an example of how to do it right. Gracefully compressing Dickens' notoriously prolific prose into 132 minutes of film, McGrath boils the novel down to its core storyline: Nicholas's (Charlie Hunnam) struggle for revenge against the cruel uncle who betrayed the trust of Nicholas and his family. When Nicholas Nickleby Sr. dies, Nicholas Jr., his sister Kate (Romola Garai), and their mother (Stella Gonet) throw themselves on the mercy of Mr. Nickleby's older brother Ralph (a delightfully menacing Christopher Plummer). In a feint of generosity, Ralph finds Nicholas a job at a remote boys' school in Yorkshire; but when Nicholas arrives at his new post, he discovers a squalid hall filled with mistreated, malnourished lads who cower before headmaster Wackford Squeers (the perfectly cast Jim Broadbent) and his sadistic wife (Juliet Stevenson). Nicholas's saving grace in this monument to misery is Smike (Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell, in one of the film's most affecting performances), a crippled orphan who craves the affection Nicholas is eager to give. The two become firm friends, eventually fleeing the school and hitting the road. They find a temporary home with a theatrical troupe led by the eccentric, overblown Mr. Crummles (Nathan Lane), but news of Ralph's questionable treatment of Kate soon calls them back to London. Nicholas and Ralph are immediately at odds, with the elder Nickleby determined to ruin his respectable, good-hearted nephew, and the younger equally as determined to prevent his uncle from threatening his family's happiness or his blossoming relationship with pretty young Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway). This being Dickens, several plot twists and remarkable coincidences conspire to shake things up before the end, but it's all part and parcel of a world that's home to characters with names like Nicholas Nickleby and Wackford Squeers in the first place. Thanks to the stellar cast — particularly Bell, Plummer, and Broadbent — and the well-paced story, McGrath's film is always entertaining; add to that the picture's strong production design (you can practically taste the soot and stench of Victorian London) and rich cinematography, and you've got a thoroughly enjoyable, artistically elegant bit of filmmaking that promises to stand the test of time. MGM's two-sided special edition DVD does well by the movie. Both the anamorphic (2.35:1) and full-screen transfers are clear and bright, and the English DD 5.1 audio is crisp (French and Spanish 2.0 Surround tracks are available, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.) Extras include a 30-minute "making-of" featurette (with 11 chapter markers), 17 minutes' worth of the cast reflecting on their fellow actors, five multi-angle set views, a photo gallery, trailers, and an earnest (if slightly condescending at times) audio commentary by McGrath. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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