Nicholas Nickleby [2002]

Yes, it's nine hours long. Yes, it's Charles Dickens, he of the 900-page novels you had to read in high school. And, yes, it's a film of a play. But the Royal Shakespeare Company's Tony Award-winning 1981 production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby at London's Old Vic Theatre was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and those of us who missed its Emmy-winning PBS broadcast can be thankful for A&E's superb video boxed set. Dickens's story of greed, poverty, and cruelty in Victorian England is handled deftly by director Jim Goddard and set designer John Napier, who never deny their film's staginess but instead seek to exploit it, unafraid to show the viewer the skeletal nature of the theater and, in one instance, boldly using actors as props. The RSC makes excellent use of this mise en scène, bringing to life Dickens's characters with intensity, verve, and just the right notes of melodrama--this being a Dickens story, after all. Roger Rees plays the young, earnest Nicholas, whose father's death prompts him; his sister, Kate (Emily Richard); and their mother (Jane Downs) to make their way to London to seek out the financial assistance of Nicholas's cold, calculating uncle, Ralph Nickleby (played to scowly perfection by John Woodvine). Ralph grudgingly provides his nephew with employment at a Yorkshire school for abandoned boys under the cartoonishly vile Wackford Squeers (Alun Armstrong), but Nicholas can't stomach the physical abuse Squeers heaps on his students. After lashing out at the sadistic schoolmaster during a particularly savage beating of a child, Nicholas escapes the school, taking with him the most wretched of the young creatures, a limping, crooked-backed boy named Smike (played heart-wrenchingly by David Threlfall). The story unfolds from there, with the now-itinerant Nicholas forced to make his way in the world while adhering to his principles and protecting Kate and their mother from his scheming uncle, who is eventually forced to come to terms with his emotions in the story's shocking conclusion. Typically Dickensian, the characters are neatly divided between good and evil, with little ambiguity. Still, each of the 39 actors in the ensemble does a wonderful job, making it a production that figures to linger in the memory long after you're done clapping. --Steve Landau

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