Not the Winter success that it was likely hoped to be, "Nicholas Nickleby" never really found an audience, nor did the film receive much marketing support. While the PG rating would suggest that it's a family film, only older children would likely express any interest in the 2+ hour period piece. Given the film's art-house style release (no more than 96 screens), the film really never had that much of a chance.
While certainly not without some flaws, the film certainly has a capable director in Douglas McGrath, the director of the Paltrow version of "Emma" and writer of Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway". He has pulled together an interesting cast, full of older, established talents (Jim Broadbent, Christopher Plummer) and newer ones (Charlie Hunham, Anne Hathaway and Billy Elliot...er.., I mean Jamie Bell).
McGrath has done some considerable trimming to get the film down to a reasonable length, but the story still seems to work well and develop characters and plot points sufficently. The tale concerns the title character, whose father, recently deceased, had suffered from debt. Forced to travel with his mother and sister to London to visit with his uncle, Ralph (Christopher Plummer), Nicholas finds his uncle to be of little assistance. Although he does find the young lad a job, it's working at a boarding school whose headmaster, Wackford (Jim Broadbent) and his wife, often punish the children. When Wackford takes his anger out on the crippled Smike (Jamie Bell), Nicholas takes matters into his own hands and hits the road, with Smike along for the journey.
On their way to London, the two run into several odd and/or interesting characters, including a love interest for Nicholas in Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway, "The Princess Diaries"). Meanwhile, Ralph is trying to use Nicholas' sister Kate (Romola Garai, who, for some reason, reminded me a bit of a younger Drew Barrymore), to one of his fellow investors. There are plenty of aspects of McGrath's film that should be considered positives. Aside from the casting and directing, McGrath pulls together a surprisingly strong-looking film for $10m (it looks like a $20-25m one), which seems like a tiny sum these days. The film's production design, costumes and locations are all superb. The film's cinematography (by director Mike Leigh's cinematographer, Dick Pope) is excellent; rich and warm at times, convincingly cold, textured and shadowy at others.
The performances are generally excellent. Broadbent, Nathan Lane and Alan Cumming are quite good in smaller roles, while Christopher Plummer is remarkably icy as Ralph. Huhnam was better doing comedy on Fox's cancelled sitcom, "Undeclared", but he's not bad here, nor is Anne Hathaway.
Overall, this is an energetic, convincing production. Although there are a few slow points, the acting often quickly focuses again and Rachel Portman's subtle score picks back up, pulling the movie forward again. Purists may be dismayed at this shortening of the popular novel, but I think that McGrath really did pull together a compelling, condensed adaptation that largely works.
VIDEO: MGM offers "Nicholas Nickleby" in both 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 pan & scan. Both editions get their own side of a dual-sided, dual-layered disc. The anamorphic widescreen presentation is generally quite good, although there are a few minor flaws within the transfer that keep it from truly capturing the movie's visual strength's well. Definition is usually average or above-average; while some scenes appear to be intentionally slightly soft to give a "period" look, other scenes are crisp and cool, with nice sharpness and detail.
A few flaws unfortunately did occur. The print is largely crisp and clean, although a few minor specks did appear in a couple of scenes. Edge enhancement - only mild amounts, nothing too serious - turned up in a handful of scenes. No compression artifacts or other issues appeared. As for the film's color palette, it was usually quite subdued, but seemed accurately rendered.
SOUND: "Nicholas Nickleby" is presented by MGM/UA in Dolby Digital 5.1. Given the material, it's to be expected that this is a largely a dialogue-driven feature. A bit of information is offered by the rear speakers in a couple of instances - some reinforcement of Rachael Portman's score here, a little bit of ambience there - but largely, this soundtrack is firmly rooted within the front channels. Audio quality was pleasant and satisfying; Portman's score was crisply and cleanly reproduced, with the more dramatic passages sounding dynamic and fierce. Dialogue remained clean and natural throughout, as well.
EXTRAS: Aside from a commentary by director Douglas McGrath, the DVD features documentaries on the making of the film, an interview with the cast about the cast (lightweight interviews and quite a bit of "happy talk"), multi-angle footage (one angle for the final scene, one for behind-the-scenes clip on the set) and the film's trailer. A photo gallery and trailers for other MGM releases ("Die Another Day", "Princess Bride" and "Evelyn") are also included.
Final Thoughts: Strong performances, inspired casting and excellent visuals make this an adaptation of "Nickleby" worth checking out. MGM's DVD edition provides fine audio/video, along with a few supplements. Recommended.