If the idea of sitting through a two-hour-plus film adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby scares the living PBS out of you, fret not. Douglas McGrath’s latest may lack the lyricism of David Lean’s Oliver Twist and Great Expectations but Nicholas Nickleby may just be the funniest Dickens film ever mounted for the screen. McGrath co-wrote Bullets Over Broadway and appeared in four films by Woody Allen, whose influence is all over the catty dialogue heard here. It’s no surprise then that Nicholas Nickleby plays out like one deliriously long gay joke. When Nicholas’s father dies, he and his family implore Uncle Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer) for help. The malicious old goat forces Kate Nickleby (Romola Garai) to repeatedly rub shoulders with horny old men and sends Nicholas to work as a professor in Wackford Squeers’s Dotheboys Hall (pronounced “Do the Boys” by the disgusting one-eyed Squeers, played by the amazing Jim Broadbent). Nicholas saves a half-naked Smike (Jamie Bell) from the wrath of Squeers and his wife (Juliet Stevenson), leaves Dotheboys Hall with Bell’s mini Quasimodo and joins an acting troupe manned by Nathan Lane’s Vincent Crummles and his gay husband (Barry Humphries). McGrath fabulously fashions an unlikely daisy wheel sketch comedy out of Dickens’s otherwise morose source material. McGrath directs with charming symmetry and evokes a delightful Tweedle Dee/Tweedle Dum relationship between the Cheeryble lawyer brothers played by Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan. Plummer, Broadbent and Tom Courtenay have a blast playing the film’s Dickensian horrors for laughs. To make Dickens sound funny is no small feat but in so doing McGrath makes the material’s “family values” that much easier to swallow.
MGM Home Entertainment presents Douglas McGrath's underrated Nicholas Nickleby in its original 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen on this gorgeous DVD edition of the film. With the exception of some minor edge enhancement and less-than-stellar blacks here and there, this is a remarkably warm and vibrant transfer-no small feat considering just how often the mise-en-scène shifts gears (from cheery, theatrical scenarios to more dark and sinister ones). The Dolby Digital surround track is simple but lovely. Rachel Portman's eccentric score is never overwhelming and dialogue is perfectly audible throughout.
The features on this DVD edition of Nicholas Nickleby begin with a straight-forward but passionate commentary track by director Doulgas McGrath, who goes on about the challenges he faced in whittling down Dickens's epic novel to one-seventh of its original length. McGrath's dedication to the story and admiration for his cast and crew (most especially composer Rachel Portman and actress Heather Goldenhersh) is to be commended. "Creating a Classic: The Making of Nicholas Nickleby" is a cute 30-minute featurette conveniently divided into 11 chapters, and covers topics as varied as the film's screenplay, characters, performances, sets and cinematography. The "The Cast on the Cast!" featurette allows the cast of the film to gloat over each other's characters and performances and the "View on the Set!" featurette offers a multi-angle glimpse at several scenes from the film. Also included here is a photo gallery and trailers for Nicholas Nickleby, Die Another Day, Evelyn and The Princess Bride.
Charlie Hunnam's banal turn as Nicholas Nickleby may be the only disappointment of Douglas McGrath's sweet and old-fashioned comedy.