Just this past week, I read an essay by Christopher Kelly
of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, addressing what an
adapting screenwriter owes to the author of the original work,
with the film Adaptation as its leaping-off point.
This is pertinent because adapting Dickens for a regular-length
feature film generally means omitting large swathes of story
in the rush to introduce and properly place the plethora of
characters he typically includes in his novels. Douglas
McGrath has chosen to omit nearly all of the Dickensian
grimness of Nicholas Nickleby, choosing instead to
telegraph it to us by means of nyah-hah-hah performances by
the heavies and the soulful, smudged eyes of Jamie Bell
as the much-wronged Smike.
Guess what? It works.
McGrath wrote Bullets Over Broadway with Woody
Allen, and wrote and directed 1996’s Emma, so it’s
not surprising to find that he’s more drawn to the amusing
aspects of Nicholas Nickleby. There are some, though
they aren’t what spring to mind when one thinks about the
novel. Nicholas Nickleby-the-novel is rather known
for its depiction of “private academies”—unsupervised institutions
that make Jane Eyre’s Lowood look like a marvel of generosity.
Boys sent to these academies could expect little in the way
of sustenance, be it emotional, gustatory, or educational.
The academy in this tale is Dotheboys Hall—pronounced DoTheBoys—and
our hero, sent there as a teacher, is appalled at what he
finds. Young Nickleby is a gentleman by rights, but his family
has fallen on hard times. His kindly father, through inattention
to personal finance, left Nicholas, his mother, and sister
Kate nothing but debts. They go to London, hoping for aid
from their uncle, Ralph Nickleby (Plummer). He finds
them employment, but in such mean circumstances that it’s
more harm than help, really. Nicholas works at Dotheboys for
the Squeers, a family so vile, so mean, ignorant, and slovenly
that calling them pigs is an insult to honest swine everywhere.
The Squeers abuse their young charges, starving them, beating
them, and ever exhorting them to write home for more money.
They especially abuse Smike (Bell), a student who’s been abandoned
at the school. With no one paying his way now, Smike has become
the Squeers’ slave. Nicholas of course is unable to stand
by and watch the mistreatment. He befriends Smike, and eventually,
the two flee Dotheboys and take to the road, where they have
adventures, including joining a theatrical troupe led by one
Mr. Crummles (Lane). They make their way to London,
where immediately Nicholas finds a whey-faced noble (Fox)
talking trash about Kate, and thrashes him. The rest of the
movie is a rollercoaster of things looking up, followed by
evil interferences by Uncle Ralph and Wackford Squeers (Broadbent),
followed by more hopeful occurrences, followed by unfortunate
misunderstandings, followed by… well, you get the picture.
The moment one crisis ends, Nicholas is headlong into another.
Naturally, though, it all comes out right in the end, which
is bittersweet, because there are two deaths.
The tagline for this movie is “Every family needs a hero.”
Now I find a lot of these Dickens heroes to be colorless
fellows who elicit our sympathies because they’re done dirt
rather than because of who they are. Nicholas is a cut above
the rest, having enough force of personality to deliver a
few ass-whippings. Charlie Hunnam, better known from
“Queer As Folk,” is suitably handsome and bland, and Anne
Hathaway is a good match as his love interest. (Honestly,
I’m not giving anything away here.) The story is the real
star here, with its twists and turns of incredible virtue
(the Cheeryble brothers—gotta love these Dickens names!) and
infamous villainy. Just watching evil old white men like Uncle
Ralph, Sir Mulberry Hawk, and Wackford Squeers confirms everything
you’ve ever feared about how the world really operates. Plummer
and Broadbent all but roll around in the wickedness, giving
fine performances that deliver two faces of evil. With the
exception of the forceful Mrs. Squeers (Stevenson),
the female characters are virtuous little violets, wanting
only to sun themselves in the love of some good man.
Nicholas Nickleby has a lot of voiceover, from A Storyteller
who is not identified until the end. The VO is handled well
here. Instead of a crutch for what the screenwriter was too
incompetent to show us, it’s more like mood music. And then
there’s Rachel Portman’s nifty, swelling mood music.
On the minus side, I could occasionally have used subtitles.
Some of those upcountry English accents were nigh unto unintelligible.
This story is well told, considering that it’s been pared
to the bone. The secret, I suspect, is that McGrath recognized
the bone. Despite its trimming, Nicholas Nickleby is
an engaging, affecting movie. You’d have to be Uncle Ralph
himself to watch this (or to read the book) and remain a “compassionate