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Nicholas Nickleby (PG)
MGM/United Artists
Official Site
Director: Douglas McGrath
Producers: Simon Channing Williams, John N. Hart, Jeffrey Sharp
Written by: Douglas McGrath; from the novel by Charles Dickens
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Romola Garai, Tom Courtenay, Christopher Plummer, Anne Hathaway, Jim Broadbent, Jamie Bell, Juliet Stevenson, Bruce Cook, Alan Cumming, Edward Fox, Nicholas Rowe, Eileen Walsh, Nathan Lane, Dame Edna Everage, Timothy Spall, Gerard Horan

Rating: out of 5

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 conservative.”

—Roxanne Bogucka


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