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Movie Info




December 27, 2002


130 minutes


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


Douglas McGrath


Charles Dickens


United Artists/MGM




Older children to adults


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Nicholas Nickleby

Andrea Rock
Movieguide Magazine - 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.

In 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.

Nicholas and 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.

The 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 visual impact.

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:

Alex Yemenidjian,
2500 Broadway Street
Santa Monica, CA 90404-3061
Phone: (310) 449-3000
Fax: (310) 449-3024

The previous reviews are a selected sample of informative reviews from MOVIEGUIDE: A FAMILY GUIDE TO MOVIES AND ENTERTAINMENT, a syndicated feature of Good News Communications, Inc. To subscribe to MOVIEGUIDE, which includes a complete set of at least 10 reviews of the latest movies as well as many informative articles, please visit their Web site at, or write or call:

P.O. Box 190010
Atlanta, GA 31119
(800) 899-6684

DISCLAIMER: "The publications that carry MOVIEGUIDE and the organizations that distribute MOVIEGUIDE are not responsible for these reviews, nor is MOVIEGUIDE responsible for the opinions and positions of those publications and organizations."

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