Condensing all this into three hours is no mean achievement. Martyn Edward Hesford's screenplay maintains an impressive balance between dramatic tension and allowing the characters the space they need to reveal their essential qualities. Only in the last 30 minutes does it become something of a gallop to the finishing post. True, the horrors of the boarding school could be more horrific; the grime of Victorian London and its toothless inhabitants could be grimier and less cosmetic. But as always with a superior production of a Dickens novel, the richness and depth of the drama outweigh such minor quibbles.
As for the cast, James D'Arcy's Nicholas is pitch-perfect: part cipher for the injustices and despair he encounters, part emblem for the triumph of goodness, an innocent whose eyes are quickly forced open to the darker realities of life. These darker realities are congealed in Charles Dance's relentlessly chilling, heartless Ralph Nickleby. This is a deceptively complex performance; even as we cheer the gathering forces which finally extinguish his increasingly desperate power, the awful tragedy of his end still elicits a discomforting ounce of sympathy. Gregor Fisher as the one-eyed Squeers and Pam Ferris as his fearsomely lascivious wife are outstanding in an ensemble of fine character actors. And Lee Ingleby's Smike gives our tear ducts a good workout while steering just the right side of sentimentality.
On the DVD: Nicholas Nickleby is presented in widescreen format with Dolby Digital soundtrack, and has all the technical qualities you might expect from the DVD release of a modern television production. Extras include cast filmographies, a Dickens biography and a list of his work, all of which add to the disc's merits as a literary educational tool. --Piers Ford
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