December 27, 2002
STARRING THE VOICES OF:
Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent,
Tom Courtenay, Alan Cumming, Edward Fox, Romola Garai, Anne
Hathaway, Barry Humphries, Charlie Hunnam, Nathan Lane, Christopher
Plummer, Timothy Spall, and Juliet Stevenson
BASED ON THE NOVEL BY:
Older children to adults
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- Charles Dickens' novels are a film producer's dream, as they masterfully
combine rich storytelling with mordant social commentary - executed through clearly
drawn, almost caricatured characters, and vivid dialogue. His third novel, NICHOLAS
NICKLEBY, is a wonderful source for such an adaptation, skillfully done by Douglas
McGrath, whose previous successes include a filmed version of Jane Austin's EMMA.
Because Dickens' novels were originally serialized in a weekly periodical,
his style tended toward the melodramatic (a perfect candidate for today's soap
operas!). The biggest challenge for a screenwriter is that Dickens' in-depth character
descriptions are often lavish enough to be spun off into novels themselves, so
serious editing is needed in order to tell the story in two hours. Douglas McGrath
wisely chose to focus on the novel's central tension between Nicholas and his
uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Viewers who have read the novel will recognize the omission
and/or conflation of some characters, as well as the omission or expansion of
some subplots, but will no doubt be fairly pleased with the result.
the wake of his unwise speculations, Nicholas Nickleby's untimely death leaves
his young family impoverished. His widow, daughter Kate (Romola Garai) and son
Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) must leave their country cottage for London, in pursuit
of the beneficence of his brother, the wealthy, miserly Ralph Nickleby (Christopher
Plummer). With grim delight, Uncle Ralph procures a five-pound-per-year position
for young Nicholas as assistant to Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent), owner of
Dotheboys Hall, a squalid boarding school for unwanted or illegitimate boys. The
wretched Squeers and his equally wretched wife (Juliet Stevenson) are utterly
inhumane in their treatment of the young boys - feeding them poorly, beating them
often - all the while offering little meaningful education. When Squeers tries
to beat the crippled young Smike, Nicholas wrests the whip and turns on Squeers
himself, then flees to London with Smike, by now his good friend, in tow. The
remainder of the movie chronicles Nicholas' adventures as he attempts to rebuild
his family and avenge the indignities imposed by his uncle.
Smike encounter the flamboyant Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane), a theatrical producer,
whose troupe they successfully join until they are called back to London, where
Nicholas finds his mother and sister Kate lodged in one of Uncle Ralph's run-down
London cottages. The mean-spirited Ralph has procured for Kate a low-paying position
as a seamstress, in return for which she is expected to endure the leering looks
and sexual advances of Ralph's clients. Nicholas saves his sister from the letches,
and becomes gainfully employed by the cheerfully philanthropic Cheeryble brothers,
enabling him to provide for his mother and Kate. He falls in love with the nubile
Madeline Bray, whom Uncle Ralph is conniving to barter into marriage to one of
his ailing, elderly clients.
Ralph and Squeers conspire unsuccessfully
to retaliate against Nicholas and Smike. Their effort leads to the tragic, but
ultimately happy resolution of the story.
In distilling the major elements
of the novel, and for the sake of "theater," McGrath admittedly (and understandably)
aggrandized the role of Crummles and his troupe, both in the middle of the film,
and by placing them at the double wedding at the film's finale. He clearly wanted
to emphasize Dickens' acknowledged pattern of writing about characters' ability
to create a new sense of family when one's original family collapses. However,
his casting of Barry Humphries as Mrs. Crummles (Humphries is best known for his
transvestite roles, most recently Dame Edna) opposite Nathan Lane's effeminate
version of Crummles is an unnecessary and inappropriate modern imposition on Dickens'
own brand of social commentary.
The acting from the "big names," Plummer,
Broadbent and Courtenay, is predictably superb, as is that of most of the younger
newcomers. The only one who qualifies for a "very good" rather than "superb" is
the lead himself, Charlie Hunnam, who probably suffers more from script limitations
than from insufficient talent. His Nicholas as written is so relentlessly moral
that he's almost a "goody-two-shoes," too good to be true. As a result, his performance
sometimes pales next to the heavy-hitters who carry the movie. The villains go
for the laughs, softening roles that are otherwise drawn as purely bad.
lighting, sets and cinematography are wonderful. The bleak sets are painfully
so, and the representation of dark parlors lighted with kerosene lamps offer strong
contrast to the magnificent, sunlit scenes of the lush English countryside. Only
period experts could recognize the subtle ways that some settings are historically
inaccurate, with the changes having been made for the sake of optimum dramatic
The villains of the story surely represent a humanist philosophy,
but Nicholas is completely moral and good triumphs over evil, closing the film
on a strong redemptive note. Although none of the characters expresses profound
faith in God, toward the end a background figure sings about the glory of God.
Sadly, the film could easily have been made for a G-rating, as younger
viewers are able to understand characters that so clearly portray good and evil,
and most people, the staff of MOVIEGUIDE included, love happy endings. Hollywood
just can't resist throwing in enough risqu elements to take films to the level
of PG! Please address your comments to:
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