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Nicholas Nickleby 
Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Jamie Bell, Christopher Plummer, Anne Hathaway, Romola Garai, Nathan Lane, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson and Timothy Spall
Director/Scriptwriter: Douglas McGrath (adapted from the Charles Dickens novel)
Music: Rachel Portman
United Artists
Running Time: 135 minutes
Rating: PG (with some violence and a childbirth scene)

Your mom and grandma might like this one, but leave me out. Nicholas Nickleby, adapted from one of Charles Dickens's gigantic novels, is a costume drama with a great cast, great possibilities, and a great hole in the middle. That empty void where a leading man should be is Charlie Hunnam, the star and titular hero of our movie. He's a pretty boy who looks like he'd be more comfortable in Dawson's Creek, and he strides through the movie with a blank stare and an insipid smile. His noble protestations of honor, love, and valor feel like the whinings of a spoiled child, and his love scenes are pathetic and embarrassing. I am not exaggerating when I state that I was so bored in certain places that I started counting the ceiling tiles in the screening room.

This is a shame as the rest of the cast is absolutely top-notch. Christopher Plummer gives another magnificent performance as the evil Uncle
Ralph. When Nicholas's father dies, Uncle Ralph is forced to care for young Nicholas, as well as Nicholas's sister Kate and mother. So he ships off Nicholas to a boarding school only Dickens could imagine. The headmaster (slave driver's a better word) is Wackford Squeers, played by Jim Broadbent, who's great as always. Meanwhile, Uncle Ralph is shopping Kate, who like her cinematic brother looks a little too tidy to be in this picture, around to various gross old men. Nicholas escapes with his new friend Smike, who has the misfortune of being a Dickensian object of pity. They rush back to London to save the honor of Nickleby's sister and mother.

There, Smike falls in love with Kate, while Nicholas falls in love with Madeline (Anne Hathaway). She of course is also in a desperate state--about to be sold, I mean married, to another gross old man by her disgusting father. The black hole in our film saves the day, thanks to the timely intervention of two brothers (played with comic genius by the great Timothy Spall and Gerald Horan).

It's a great Dickens tale, one that feels a little clipped in a two-hour movie but still has enough power and passion to move ('manipulate' isn't a wrong word, either) the audience. And when we're watching Christopher Plummer or Jim Broadbent or Nathan Lane (as a traveling impresario, natch) or Timothy Spall or any one of many interesting side characters, the effect is quite enjoyable. But a movie entitled Nicholas Nickleby is going to have a lot of Nicholas in it, and that's a whirlpool of despair. Enter at your peril. You might be disappointed to find yourself spending two hours counting ceiling tiles. 

by J. Robert Parks 12/23/2002

"Take your brimstone and treacle and be thankful for it." That was the vitamin supplement of its day and Charles Dickens made the most of it. In Nicholas Nickleby, boys in an boarding school are "treated" to this mixture to keep them from becoming ill, however, it is actually used by the wicked head of this school to ruin the boys appetite and thus save money. Aye, it is Dickens to be sure.

Douglas McGrath has done a first-rate job of taking a classic Dickens story of perseverance and fortitude and adapting it to the screen. Some may prefer the 1947 British version, directed by Alberto Calvacanti and starring Derek Bond, (Sir) Cedric Hardwicke, Sally Ann Howes and (Dame) Sybil Thorndike but either way, they are delights. McGrath has the advantage of Rachel Portman and her music score that typifies the time of Dickens in London. Costumes, photography and set design are first rate, especially Christopher Plummer's house that looks like the dried-heart individual he is.

Nicholas Nickleby concerns a family thrown into near-poverty by the death of the father and husband. Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam), his sister Kate (Romola Garai), and mother (Stella Gonet) can't sell their small home, so they travel to London for aid from their rich uncle, Plummer. Here is a man with a heart of stone. When he promises aid, it really means misfortune. Nicholas is employed as a teacher in a boarding school run by Squeers and his wife (Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson) That makes prison look good by comparison. While there, Nicholas befriends a boy everyone picks on, Smike (Jamie Bell). In the meantime, the uncle is arranging for his wealthy friends (Edward Fox, in particular) to date his niece, much to her displeasure. When Nicholas becomes his own person and makes life-changing decisions the adventures really begin. They include meeting Nathan Lane as the owner of a theatre troupe, Timothy Spall as a wealthy friend and Anne Hathaway as the girl who claims Nicholas' heart. 

This film was screened late for critics in my city and as a result was not on my list of 2002 best films. It could have been. Here is a story rich with characters and the right actors to portray them. Nathan Lane comes on like the P. T. Barnum of his time. Bell's "Smike," the crippled boy, is an instant eye-waterer and the marriage between Squeers and his wife is a lesson in "love is blind." The humor comes from various situations including verbal exchanges between Plummer and his clerk and the efforts to rescue Smike. Dewy-eyed maidens (Garai and Hathaway) are in abundance and Lane's traveling troupe provides a home ("…he went to sleep a wretch and awoke an actor…") for wayward thespians (Alan Cummings and Dame Edna Everage)

The points Dickens brings home in Nicholas Nickleby apply as much to present day people living barely above the poverty level and trying to have hope as they did to Industrial Revolution England; family includes extended family, especially when real family may prove unkind; friends are found just around the corner ready to lend aid at unusual times and circumstance; food is a precious commodity and work is not available for everyone who wants it. Love means to cherish, but children, who are meant to be loved, are sometimes raised in dire conditions.

As the lead actor, Charlie Hunnam gives Nicholas strength and courage. However, whenever Nathan Lane or Christopher Plummer are on screen, just sit back and let them run the show. As in the film, Ararat, when the camera zooms in for a close-up of Plummer, every facial muscle does an acting job, just like Michael Caine in The Quiet American. This is what acting is all about.

With any Dickens tale, the story has twists and turns, surprises and tragedy. Such is life and Charles Dickens could tell it better than most. What an observer of the human condition he was and director McGrath brings it to the screen in consummate detail.

Copyright 2003 Marie Asner
Submitted 1/11/03

 

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