Released by: Twilight Time
Released on: December 13th, 2016.
Director: Douglas McGrath
Cast: Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent, Charlie Hunnam, Edward Fox, Christopher Plummer, Anne Hathaway
Year: 2002 Purchase From Screen Archives
My writing teacher in college used to enjoy early in the first semester offhandedly remarking to his classes, "Dickens was paid by the word and wrote like it." This usually elicited some minor shock from his audience. Dickens, while not exactly Shakespeare, was writing royalty and it was considered mildly outrageous to be dismissive of him. But the man had a point. I've read most of Dickens key work and never fully warmed to him on the page. There is indeed the feel of bloat at times, and everything can get, in that charming turn of British phrase, a bit twee now and then. Names like Uriah Heep - that scream LOOK AT ME - spring immediately to mind.
But Dickens often had interesting and complex stories to tell with real emotional heft. Because of that fact, he remains that oddest of ducks for me - a writer who's work I enjoy far more on the screen than on the page.
Dickens' "Nicholas Nickelby" isn't quite the classic that "A Christmas Carol" is, but it's a fine story filled with most of the man's classic elements. A virtuous young man suffers terrible familial misfortune and must find his way in the world under the care of a rapacious and cruel uncle. There's the usual subtexts dealing with the exploitative upper classes and the abuse of children as well as a heart tugging crippled character (ala Tiny Tim).
Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam) and his mother (Stella Gomez) and sister Kate (Romola Garai), set off from home after the sudden death of the family patriarch to live with uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer), a rich miser with many sources of income including a boarding school at which he promptly puts Nicholas to work. After becoming horrified at the abuse of the children there and befriending the crippled Smike (Jamie Bell), Nicholas and his new friend leave the school after headmaster Squeers (a wonderfully malevolent Jim Broadbent) pushes the abuse too far. The two boys end up joining a troupe of actors headed by one Vincent Crummies (Nathan Lane) where they have many adventures and encounter quite a few charming eccentrics played by the likes of Alan Cumming. But the sexual harassment of his sister by uncle Ralph's business cronies forces Nicholas to return and deal with the harsh realities of his family's oppression under uncle Ralph.
Director Mark McGrath's film clocks in at a little over two hours - based on a thousand word novel. While the source material is a real epic, the shortcuts taken here don't do any damage to the story or its emotional power. This is a handsome and well produced film with excellent performances and it is rendered beautifully. The sets and costumes are outstanding. All of the actors are good, but Anne Hathaway's love interest and Plummer's evil uncle stand out. For some reason this film had a hard time attracting an audience during its theatrical run in 2002. Here's hoping it does better in this format.
Twilight Time's 1080p AVC encoded 2.35:1 presentation is about par for the label's course at this point in time. It's a solid and good looking transfer free from any major debilitating issues like obvious DNR or other distracting tinkering. There is some minor print damage visible at times but it's barely noticeable. This is a lush film in terms of color and it also has a few darkly shot scenes, and these important areas are where the transfer earns its plaudits. Black levels are appropriately deep and color reproduction excellent. Fine image detail, most important in the scarred faces of certain characters and the authentic period costuming and sets, is uniformly strong. This isn't a particularly old film and I have not seen the DVD, but I'd be mightily surprised if this isn't a significant HD upgrade.
The audio is covered by twin DTS-HD MA tracks with one in 2.0 and the other in 5.1 - with my preference being the two channel by far. There's some weird anomalies in the 5.1 mix that accentuate background and ambient sound and make the dialog occasionally difficult to understand. The 2.0 is simply smoother and won't leave you scrambling for the volume button to catch crucial bits. Neither track is ever shrill or improperly boosted however. The source elements were well recorded.
Director Douglas McGrath provides an engaging solo audio commentary. It's pretty comprehensive and covers all aspects of the production. I have to say though, considering my ambivalence towards Dickens, what I found most fascinating was his breakdown of dealing with distilling such a massive literary work into a manageable two hour film. Past that, there are some nice on set and actor-related anecdotes. Next up we have some solid but fairly standard archival featurettes. One is a half hour making-of piece that sees the cast and crew discussing the film, and the second is a seventeen minute feature focusing exclusively on the cast talking about each other. This is fun, but my favorite extra is the strange four minute multi-angle featurette. This utilizes raw footage from different camera angles with behind-the-scenes material. It's very "film geek" but fascinating.
Finally, we have the usual insightful Julie Kirgo liner notes, Rachel Portman's lovely score on an isolated track, and the film's original theatrical trailer.
The Final Word:
As far as Charles Dickens on film goes, this is one of the better ones, and should be especially pleasing to fans of the novel. Previous tellings of this tale have been almost exclusively in the television format (whether as a mini-series or TV movie) to allow more of the source material in, but McGrath's film delivers the big budget look that suits this material. Twilight Time have delivered a pleasing package that ticks off all the AV boxes and gives the buyer some quality supplements. As such, this is an easy recommendation for those with even a cursory interest.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!