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The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1981) – DVD Review



Written by: David Edgar, from the Charles Dickens novel
Directed by: John Caird, Jim Goddard, and Trevor Nunn
Starring: Roger Rees, David Threlfall, John Woodvine, Emily Richard, Nicholas Gecks, Edward Petherbridge, Thelma Whiteley, Alun Armstrong, Rose Hill, Lila Kaye, John McEnery, and Ian McNeice


  • Episode of A&E’s Biography for Charles Dickens
  • Charles Dickens biography/bibliography

Released by: A&E Home Video
Region: 1
Rating: NR
Anamorphic: N/A

My Advice: Buy it.

As with any of Dickens novels, you know that you are in for a treat from the very first page, or in this case, from the very first scene. Nicholas Nickleby, like most of Dickens’ works, is a protest against the mercantilism, selfishness, snobbery, and open cruelty of Victorian society. Children were unprotected, as were women, and these dismal themes play out in sharp relief in this film. Yet, it is not all gloom and misery. There are people with real compassion and depth of character, and, as with life, there are lessons to be learned that might improve the future of our lives, even if our pasts are tainted with a poverty of spirit.

[ad#longpost]As you would expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company, the acting is exemplary. David Threlfall as Smike is worthy of particular mention; his portrayal of the mentally and physically handicapped young man is simply astounding. Rees as Nicholas Nickleby and Woodvine as Ralph Nickleby are also amazing, but everyone in the cast is dead on and brings additional nuances and life to their roles, allowing people who might never read the original novel to still feel as if they knew these Victorians. Alun Armstrong in his role as Squeers is devilishly vile, Nicholas Gecks is peerless as the fragile, yet brave Lord Verisopht, and Edward Petherbridge as Newman Noggs is nothing short of brilliant–every gesture eloquent, and every word perfectly intoned. John McEnery’s portrayal of the dissolute Mr. Mantalini is absolutely hysterical. Given that only 42 actors were available to play the 250 roles called for in the film, the actors must be up to the challenge–and gloriously, they are.

The staging is quite interesting, as well, given that it was presented as a day-long stage performance. Viewers who do not think that films can be interesting without fancy special effects or camera tricks will be amazed, and stage buffs will be gratified, to see how wonderfully engrossing this performance is. The sets are minimal, but the costuming is picture perfect, and the actors and perfect prose make the production the rousing success that it is. I cannot say enough about how very good this film is, even to those who might normally find period pieces or literary classics to be tedious.


Perhaps one of the most important and touching messages of this film is that it is never too late to do the right thing. In life, it is all too easy not to notice the effects that small actions have upon our character, how easily we slide from ambitious to greedy and empty, or how depth of character can be pulled from a spineless life with the intent of a single action. We similarly do not realize that what we do affects others deeply, and also ourselves in the future.

Yes, the film set is nine hours long, but I promise you that the last scenes with their power, wonder, and emotional impact make it all worthwhile. Dickens is not reckoned a genius by accident, and these actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company are likewise lauded for their very real and very comprehensive talent. If you have never treated yourself to a staged version of Dickens or anything by the RSC, then you must see this for yourself.


It is more entertaining, and certainly more intelligent, than anything else you could buy or rent, and you will find a whole new world opened to you as you are moved to chase down the other works of these fine actors and the RSC. Just be sure to check out John Woodvine’s operatic solo midway through the film – it’s amazing!

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