Mark Reviews Movies


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Douglas McGrath

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Jamie Bell, Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent, Anne Hathaway, Romola Garai

MPAA Rating:  (for thematic material involving some violent action and a childbirth scene)

Running Time: 2:12

Release Date: 12/27/02 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

What remains in memory after watching Nicholas Nickleby are the characters, and that’s probably the way it should be. The film is based on a novel by Charles Dickens, who always made room for and seemed to thoroughly enjoy creating eclectic characters. In this respect, Nicholas Nickleby is about as successful a Dickens adaptation as one could hope for—one that elicits the spirit of the author while still condensing his extended prose to a suitable length and proper pace. Writer/director Douglas McGrath, who also was behind the entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma a few years back, dives into the material with wild abandon (as an old English teacher of mine was wont to say). He makes no excuses for the storytelling, no matter how incredible the coincidences and extent of the plot or how melodramatic the situations in which the characters find themselves. The focus of the film is character interaction, and it’s from these relationships that the plot unfolds and the themes begin to emerge. This is the stuff we expect of Dickens—themes of family loyalty, critique of the aristocracy, hidden truths, unrequited love, romantic ideals—and when the material is handled this well, it’s a joy to watch.

The Nicklebys have been living a genteel and prosperous country life, until their father dies, leaving his two children and wife to fend for themselves. Young Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam), just coming into adulthood, now finds himself in charge of his family. Hoping to help their newly impoverished state, the family travels to the city to meet with their father’s brother Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer). Although the meeting starts uncomfortably, Mr. Nickleby aids his nephew in finding a new job. Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent), a grotesque, half-blind schoolmaster, is willing to take Nicholas as a new teacher at his boarding school for boys. While Nicholas is away, Mr. Nickleby will look after his mother and sister Kate (Romola Garai). The school, however, is horrible. The students are physically and psychologically abused, particularly a crippled boy named Smike (Jamie Bell), who is forced into servitude in exchange for his “enrollment” in the school. Eventually, the terrible conditions are too much for Nicholas, who takes Smike under his wing as a friend, and after a few trials, the two are able to escape the school and make their way out into the world to make their own living.

The story is an episodic series of small adventures and discoveries for Nicholas. The story relies on the people that occupy it to give the material substance, and there are a lot of characters to meet. The tone and subject of each section of the film is determined by the type of people within it. For the most part, Nicholas’ travels are occupied by characters of lighthearted folly. After escaping the school, he and Smike happen upon a theater group, led by Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane). He’s the kind of man who likes to tell his troupe to give one final run and then, with his wife (played by Dame Edna Everage, a.k.a. Barry Humphries), gives notes throughout the entire rehearsal. Also present there is an actor named Folair (Alan Cumming) who just wants to show people a dance of which he’s proud. Later in the tale, a man named Charles Cheeryble (Timothy Spall) gives Nicholas his first, legitimate (for the most part) job. At one point, he calls to his brother, and we anticipate that they will be and then delight in the fact that they are so utterly alike in appearance in manner. Why the film works in these sections is because McGrath allows the characters time to have their moments and, in some cases, develop just a bit more than mere caricatures or, in most cases, simply establish the full degree of their idiosyncrasies.

On the other side of the spectrum are the devious, sinister men of wealth and impropriety or just plain old impropriety—Dickens' "low men." Seeming to lead them all is Nicholas' uncle, whose hatred of his nephew runs far too deep. Christopher Plummer is exceptional in his work here, particularly near the end when a present tragedy shines a light on the extent of this man’s wickedness and gives us a reason to pity him. His final moments in the film are haunting. Jim Broadbent is amusingly appalling as Squeers, the kind of man who asks way anyone would try to escape his school while he hits a young student with a cane. The dark, decrepit school for boys is just one of the great set designs in the film, all of which manage to capture the time and mood of the story. Then Dickens releases a critical attack on the aristocracy with the presentation of Mr. Nickleby’s funders, who are encouraged to woe Nicholas' sister and see their wealth as an excuse for their resulting incivility. Keeping tabs on the villains is Mr. Nickleby’s servant Newman Noggs (Tom Courtenay), who always has a mocking word to say behind his master’s back or more often straight to his face (Mr. Nickleby simply thinks he’s "a little mad").

Finally, we have our heroes. Nicholas, who’s just trying to make his way in the world and support his family—maybe even start one of his one eventually. Charlie Hunnam plays Nicholas with a substantial charm, but unfortunately, in one of the film’s most obvious weaknesses, his line reading is merely adequate at best. Nicholas' sister Kate is the innocent ingénue, and the unaffected attractiveness of Romola Garai fits the role perfectly. Anne Hathaway, another pleasing face, has a late appearance as a potential (or eventual, depending on your perspective) love interest for Nicholas. Of the cast of protagonists, Smike is the most affecting and the most important to later plot revelations. Jamie Bell garners a great deal of sympathy for Smike, whose unanswered and unspoken feelings for Kate may be the most crushing defeat in a life full of defeats.

Nicholas Nickleby continues the trend of presenting classic material in a straightforward manner, and it shows that oftentimes that is the right way to go. The film presents us with a wonderful world filled with delightful and haunting characters and a nicely woven story. This is an incredibly pleasant and highly entertaining experience.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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