Nicholas Nickleby

Nicholas Nickleby


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

It is hard to be good. Charles Dickens wrote memorable grotesques, but watery heroes, of which Nicholas is one of the dampest.

Even more than with Shakespeare, filming CD means ruthless editing. There is too much in the novels to cram into the length of a movie and so the adaptation is everything. Or nothing.

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Writer/director Douglas McGrath has kept the majority of the original cast, but for less time. Barry Humphries and Alan Cumming are glimpsed and gone before you can say, "Isn't that whod'yeflip and what'sisface?" Juliet Stevenson has a couple of fractious scenes, as Mrs Squeers, before being abandoned like an old sofa. Timothy Spall, as one of the bountiful Cheeryble twins, smiles benignly from under a copper-coloured wig, without disclosing his business, or his thoughts. And so it goes on.

Essentially, the film is weak on detail and strong on personality, although, even that, promises more than it delivers. At the centre is a performance from Charlie Hunnam, as Nicholas, that numbs the production, leaving Christopher Plummer (Uncle Ralph) and Jim Broadbent (Wackford Squeers) to fill the vacuum with masterful skill.

The story is typical CD. A perfect rural childhood is torn asunder when Nicholas's dad dies, leaving debts and a gaping hole in their hearts. His mum (Stella Gonet) takes him and his sister Kate (Romola Garai) to The Big Smoke to ask Uncle Ralph for help. He finds Kate a job as a dressmaker's assistant and sends Nicholas to a school from hell in Yorkshire where he is supposed to teach frightened boys things he doesn't know himself. It transpires that the establishment, run by a one-eyed maniac, Squeers, is a scam to entice disinterested parents to pay fees for their brats' education, or lack of it, while the loathsome Ralph is grooming the innocent Kate to become a sexual plaything for his aristocratic business acquaintances. Nicholas escapes from Yorkshire with Smike (Jamie Bell), a physically handicapped youth, and arrives in London, eager to right the wrongs done to his family, before meeting the delectable Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway), who is trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship with her selfish, destitute father.

McGrath cannot keep the flow of the narrative moving. The film is strangely static. Scenes are set as if in a theatre, which leaves it all to the actors, some of which excel, although many do not. Garai, who was so good in I Capture The Castle, can do little with Kate and Hathaway seems nervous in the presence of Hunnam, which is a nonsense since they are supposed to be infatuated with each other. Edward Fox turns up as a lustful baronet and is surprisingly affective, while Tom Courtenay, as Ralph's retainer, might well have been in pantomime. Bell, playing everyone's favourite role, is not only the right age for Smike, but is so sensitive in his portrayal that the effects of his deformity appears a reflection of another, deeper pain.

Broadbent throws the kitchen sink at Squeers and it doesn't seem overdone, although it is, which only emphasises his power as a performer, and Plummer gives a lesson in timing. Being a living saint, which is Nicholas's burden, can appear smug, self-satisfied and judgmental. Hunnam is none of these things. He appears petrified, like a tree struck by lightening.

Reviewed on: 26 Jun 2003
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A man tries to save his family - and kids at an abusive school - after they fall on hard times.
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Director: Douglas McGrath

Writer: Douglas McGrath, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Jamie Bell, Tom Courtenay, Romola Garai, Anne Hathaway, Edward Fox, Tomothy Spall, Nathan Lane, Barry Humphries, Alan Cumming, Stella Gonet, Kevin McKidd, Nicholas Rowe, David Bradley

Year: 2002

Runtime: 132 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, UK, Germany, Netherlands


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