Darn it, Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees has gone and fallen in love with another fictional character. When will the madness end?
"Never leave off hoping; it don't answer. Do you mind me, Nick? It don't answer. Don't leave a stone unturned. It's always something, to know you've done the most you could. But don't leave off hoping, or it's of no use doing anything. Hope, hope, to the last!"—Newman Noggs
A&E is to be commended for having preserved on DVD the nine-hour miniseries version of the extraordinary theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens's The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company over twenty years ago. If you're blanching at the nine-hour run time and dismissing this DVD set out of hand, do read on. The review won't take up nearly as much time as that, and I want the chance to convince as many people as possible that nine hours have rarely been so rewardingly spent. I started out as wary as anyone else at the time investment I was getting myself into, but after ten minutes, I was completely hooked. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is wonderful entertainment—funny, suspenseful, heartrending—and I enjoyed myself all the way through.
Facts of the Case
Young Nicholas Nickleby (Roger Rees, Frida), his sister Kate, and their mother are left penniless upon the death of Mr. Nickleby, so they travel to London to seek help from Mr. Nickleby's brother Ralph, a wealthy financier. Ralph Nickleby (John Woodvine, Vanity Fair) soon proves to be a cold, cruel man, and he discharges his familial duties with no affection and as little outlay of cash as possible. He arranges for Nicholas to become assistant schoolmaster at Dotheboys Hall, which is presided over by the sadistic Mr. Squeers (Alun Armstrong), his ferocious wife, and their nasty children. Nicholas is shocked to see the cruel treatment of the students, especially of the simpleminded lad known as Smike (David Threlfall, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). Nicholas finally stands up to the brutish Squeers, and he and Smike become fugitives, falling in with a theatrical troupe run by the jovial Crummles family.
Meanwhile, Kate finds and loses work at a millinery establishment and is subjected to the lewd attentions of Ralph's aristocratic acquaintances, including Sir Mulberry Hawk. Learning of this, Nicholas comes to her rescue and defies his uncle, and from that point forth he must make his own way in the world and support his small family without any assistance from Ralph. Ralph's tippling servant, Newman Noggs (Edward Petherbridge), is happy to offer Nicholas what help he can, since Ralph Nickleby brought about his own ruin. When Nicholas meets the benevolent Cheeryble brothers and finds work with them, his fortunes take a turn for the better—but his uncle is now determined to wreck Nicholas's life, and with his unprincipled associates he sets about destroying those Nicholas cares about.
I suspect that the primary thing that intimidates people about Dickens is his length. (Come now, no snickering; we're all grownups here, aren't we?) But mammoth books like Nicholas Nickleby weren't meant to be plowed through all at once; they started out as magazine serials, which gave readers the pleasure of anticipating the next installment, growing impatient to find out if the dastardly characters would meet their comeuppance and the virtuous ones would prevail despite the odds. The excitement of serial publication is mirrored by the miniseries format. Of course, you may find yourself gulping down multiple episodes at a sitting—as I confess I did—but the suspense of the serial form is one of the many pleasures this nine-episode adaptation offers. I also found myself quickly becoming grateful that this interpretation of the novel provides a more substantial and less condensed adaptation than the theatrical film versions, preserving subplots, the profusion of delightful (and odious) supplementary characters, and the development of plot and characters, so that we quickly grow to care intensely about our protagonists and the other mistreated, unfortunate, or just plain foolish souls they encounter in their adventures.
That we care so much is part of Dickens's genius. This is a writer who knows what people will respond to in a story—because, I suspect, they are the same things that moved him to write this novel in the first place: outrage at the injustice and cruelty meted upon the poor and unprotected; revulsion at the cruelty and selfishness of the corrupt and greedy; gratitude for the kind, warm-hearted people who are still to be found; and a desire to strike out (literally, as does Nicholas) on the part of the mistreated against the corrupt and vicious folk who abuse them. It's no surprise to me that the publication of Nicholas Nickleby brought about legislation to alleviate the horrifying school conditions at places like the fictional Dotheboys Hall. (Dickens even said that he toned down the horrors of such places for publication, doubting that the reality would be believed.) His social criticism is so powerful precisely because he involves us on a personal level with the evils he shows us. Nicholas Nickleby is a story about the evils of poverty and greed as much as it is a coming-of-age story, and yet these themes aren't presented dryly but play into the lives of the characters in compelling ways. Lest all this focus on social ills sound too dreary, keep in mind that Nicholas Nickleby is widely considered to be Dickens's funniest novel, so you can expect lots of comedy along with the drama.
That masterful storytelling is jubilantly preserved in this theater-to-TV adaptation, which incorporates narrative passages as well as dialogue so that we get the full flavor of Dickens's writing. And the characters are so felicitously cast, so perfectly right in their performances, that they evoke the fervent emotional response (sometimes including laughter, to be sure) that involves us in their lives even before we may know their names. I was initially intimidated by the enormous cast of characters, and the fact that they would be played by a revolving ensemble who would be doubling and tripling the roles; how would I be able to keep them apart? Thanks to the expert combination of distinctive character development, distinctive performances, and some excellent help from costume and makeup design, I had no trouble keeping the characters straight.
The remarkable cast includes some names who have become familiar faces in film and theater since this production was mounted. Nicholas himself, a moving embodiment of youthful earnestness, idealism, and impetuousness, is perfectly portrayed by Roger Rees, who became known to American audiences through TV on Cheers and the sadly short-lived M.A.N.T.I.S. He justly won the Tony and Olivier awards for his performance as Nicholas; he even looks remarkably like the original illustrations of the character by "Phiz." Ian McNeice, so deliciously awful as the lumpish young Waxford Squeers, would go on to play villainous Harkonnen in Children of Dune, and his performance in White Noise was one of the few good things about that disappointing film. Lucy Gutteridge appears in a drastically different role from that of the heroine in Top Secret!. Edward Petherbridge, nominated for a Tony for his fine comic-pathetic performance as Newman Noggs, would go on to become the all-time best embodiment of fiction's Lord Peter Wimsey in a trio of TV movies released in 1987.
Equally worthy of note for their magnificent performances are actors I didn't recognize: David Threlfall is simply astonishing in his Emmy-nominated performance as Smike, physically contorting himself to an extent that I feared for the actor's health and safety. Also excellent are John Woodvine as Nicholas's chillingly cold-hearted uncle; Bob Peck as the equally chilling but brutish Sir Mulberry Hawk; Alun Armstrong as the sickeningly oily and brutal Squeers; Jane Downs as the foolish Mrs. Nickleby; Emily Richard as the gentle but never cloying Kate Nickleby; and Suzanne Bertish in a terrific performance as both the hilariously revolting Fanny Squeers and the charming actress (Miss Snevellicci) who makes Nicholas's boyish heart flutter. Lila Kaye is terrifying as the implacable Mrs. Squeers but all gracious motherliness as Mrs. Crummles. I could go on, but lest this catalogue become tiresome ("too late," I hear someone grumble) I'll just say again that this is a sensational cast and I wouldn't have changed a single man or woman of them.
Because of the long running time, a concern perhaps even greater than the quality of the writing and performances is the directing: How will the pacing hold our attention over all this time? The answer, I am delighted to say, is that the play starts out a brisk pace after an initial chunk of exposition and doesn't let up for hours. Even the first two plot recaps are performed at a whirlwind pace to prevent the story from being bogged down. Around the fourth episode, the story relaxes a little, knowing it has us hooked; it then permits of scenes that take advantage of a less hurried tempo, like a hilarious performance by the Crummles' theatrical troupe in which we see the last scene of Romeo and Juliet performed on too small a stage, with too many actors (one noticeably drunk), and some ludicrous rewrites to give Shakespeare's tragedy a happy ending. There are also a few choral numbers around the midway point; these, I admit, were my least favorite part of the production, but others may find them stirring. In almost all respects I found the screenplay by David Edgar excellent; both script and direction seemed to know when the action could relax into longer scenes and when it needed to crank up again into urgency, in one instance even using stage blocking and lighting to create a filmic cross-cutting effect. Most of this production seems to have been taped without the audience present, but during some chase sequences we see onlookers present when the characters venture into the audience, and in a few triumphant confrontations we hear the audience cheering, which adds to the pleasure.
Audiovisual quality is excellent considering the problems inherent in videotaping a stage performance. Color is sometimes a little flat, as is almost inevitable on these occasions, but the picture is admirably clear otherwise, with no visual interference to distract. Audio is extremely good, with dialogue almost always emerging clearly, and an effective use of stereo separation. A&E has done its usual packaging job here and guaranteed that the set will take up the maximum amount of space on your shelf: the four discs are presented in four separate keep cases, boxed. It baffles me that A&E won't use two-disc keep cases, or double-sided discs, or both. The list price is also staggeringly high. (Look around online, though, and you can find it for about $30 less.) Unusually for this studio, however, we actually do get some bonus content: a very brief text biography and bibliography on Dickens is of negligible worth, but it's great to have the A&E Biography episode on the author included here. Disappointingly, there's no feature to give us a backstage glimpse at the origin or making of this astonishing coup de théàtre; interviews with the actors would have been the treacle on the crumpet.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I enjoyed—and admired—this miniseries, there are a few considerations to be mentioned that may prevent others from enjoying it as much. The very theatricality of this production may put off viewers who prefer realism in film; the fact that characters address the camera (standing in for the audience) and even sometimes play the part of scenery may be too self-conscious for some viewers. Occasionally the mixture of theatricality and film editing also produces some confusion. The actors who aren't participating in a scene stand around on the outskirts and observe, and when the camera chooses to focus on one of the observers, it can create some confusion as to whether the character, or just the actor, is privy to the scene. Similarly, many sound effects are created by the actors on the outskirts of a scene, and it can be disorienting when we are shown the actor knocking on the floor to create the effect instead of the character in the scene who is knocking on the imaginary door. The editing in this respect seems to wish to preserve the theatricality of the production at the expense of realism, and some viewers may find that intrusive.
I should also point out that Dickens is not for the jaded. If you preserve an ironic detachment toward entertainment, you will be unmoved by all that I found so wonderful here. The death scene of a particularly pitiable character will seem agonizingly maudlin to those who haven't grown to care about him. Sentimental? Perhaps. But I love seeing a work—novel, play, film—that itself cares so much about its characters and story that it sweeps us along into that emotion. And again, it isn't cheap emotionality; it exists to raise our consciousness, and indignation, at the social (and human) evils that brought this event about. Still, I feel I should alert potential viewers that they must let themselves become emotionally involved to truly appreciate this viewing experience.
An extraordinary stage accomplishment turned powerful television, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is probably unlike any other miniseries before or since. It has spoiled me for all other interpretations of this novel, and anyone who loves literature ought to give it a rental at least. Personally, I'm already looking forward to watching it over again.
Ralph Nickleby, the Squeers family, and Sir Mulberry Hawk are sentenced to daily doses of brimstone and treacle. Nicholas and the Cheeryble brothers are dismissed with the court's thanks for their efforts to make the world a better place. Case dismissed!
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