The world might not need another television adaptation of a Dickens novel, but here comes one more anyway, a fine English mini of “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” on Bravo. Pic separates itself out by hitting the humor as hard as the pathos, finding a nice contrast between the caricatures of the supporting roles and the dimensionality of the leads. Dickens is well served and, were he alive, would undoubtedly be pitching the project as a series.
Let’s not forget that Dickens’ novels are so long because they were serialized, and that’s one reason why they work so well condensed for television. Martyn Edward Hesford’s screenplay makes no apologies for the episodic structure of the story, but he very effectively does keep the multiple plotlines advancing all the way through the four hours. It’s not the most suspenseful or intense or even moving of the Dickens adaptations — even of this story. But the mini, directed by Stephen Whittaker, has a fully realized voice of its own, which is the basic measure of success with much-revived material.
It also has, above all, some striking performances. Like much of Dickens, “Nicholas Nickleby” is a tale of good and evil. Here, the good is represented by the title character, who must find a way to support his mother and sister when his honest father passes away. James D’Arcy is a young actor we’ll likely be seeing a lot more of. He’s got just the right dashing look for a young romantic hero, and he can emit his character’s empathy without a single wasted expression. The phrase “lighting up the screen” comes to mind, which is rare.
The evil is embodied by Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ uncle and a mercilessly stingy man, played with wonderful restraint by Charles Dance (“Gosford Park,” “Jewel in the Crown”). While most everyone else in the piece, especially the evil ones, are broadly played (and well done in that vein), Dance’s cruelty is composed and real, enabling the final twists to take on a tragic, human quality. The other great good and evil pairing comes from Gregor Fisher, as the insatiable glutton Squeers, and his innocent, abused charge Smike, played by Lee Ingleby with the right wide-eyed hopefulness emerging from complete despair.
If there’s a weakness here, it’s that the music from Colin Towns can be a bit unrelenting, although it does help provide unity to tonal shifts between scenes.