Nicholas Nickleby
review by Elias Savada, 27 December 2002

The delicious trimmings found in this new adaptation of Charles Dickens' first romantic novel arrive early and stay late, filling nearly every minute of the over-two-hour oeuvre with a lighthearted glow, some impudent snickers, and a glorious dose of humankind's liberating ability to triumph over a Scrooge or two.

How early? How about those delightful opening credits by Chris Allies, and how often do we critics harp on such things? Nary much, I presume. Given the red curtain treatment, la Baz Luhrmann, the conductor's baton raps thrice and the curtains are pulled aside by two hands, revealing a stage of miniature cut-outs -- the cast (in alphabetical order) responsible for this glorious vision. The technicians receive their amusing due. Small pieces of sheet music and a school bell atop a desk (music composed by Rachel Portman); panning down to the floor we spot a pin cushion and two small pairs of mid 19th-century black shoes (costume designer Ruth Myers); follow a small ribbon along the floorboards till it breaks, snapped by a doll-size pair of shears (Lesley Walker, editor); cut to a small chalk board with a sketch of the Wheel of Fire -- The Blood Drinker (production designer Eve Stewart); pull focus to a tiny hanging lamp in which a match ignites a small flame (Dick Pope, director of photography); and cut to a small stuffed black bag and gold nuggets on a table (the executive producers and producers, naturally!). Curtain and lights down (Written for the Screen and Directed by Douglas McGrath).

How utterly charming!

Most Dickens fans will be curious if a two-and-a-quarter hour condensation of a 900-plus page book can work. Yes, just as well as last year's television version with James D'Arcy (three-and-one-third hours), the still popular 1947 black-and-white adaptation starring Derek Bond (108 minutes), but probably not so kindly with the first silent version, released 100 years ago, which ran barely ten minutes. The Royal Shakespeare Company mounted a nearly ten-hour version in the 1980s. Yeeowch!

In McGrath's case, he has realized that it's not quantity, but quality, that matters. He may have jettisoned out enough dialogue and characters to fill a few sequels to the current incarnation, but what he crams in is lean, mean, and just grand. Aside from the glorious ensemble he has gathered, the spectacular production values, occasionally comic blocking, and a fine score all conjure up a wonderful Christmas feast.

After a highly enlightening introduction to the Nicklebys, wherein dad has been done in by speculation and the family forced from its quaint Devonshire cottage, nineteen-year-old Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam), his sister Kate (Romola Garai), and their despondent mum (Stella Gonet) head to London on a self-propelled mission of mercy, arriving unwelcome to the cold home of heartless uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer), a curmudgeon perfectly content in abusing his dead brother's family for bothering him with such pity. First impressions aside (I had a boss similarly villainous not so many years ago), Nicholas' first adventure puts him under to the hellish tutelage of one-eyed school master Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent), his viciously sadistic wife (Juliet Stevenson), who makes Cruella De Vil look like a saint, their overfed, piglet son (Bruce Cook) and a maliciously spiteful daughter Fanny (Heather Goldenhersh). Among the downtrodden, misbegotten, and otherwise deprived boys that are imprisoned at the horrid Dotheboys boarding school is the crippled Smike (Billy Elliott's Jamie Bell), a forgotten lad that bears most of the Squeers' abuse and instantly earns Nicholas' eternal friendship.

And thus Mr. Nickleby and his friend graduate to the larger world, filled with inner strength and moral conviction. Their journey begins far from London, unaware that Ralph Nickleby has some mean-spirited, wagering notions involving the demure Kate and her uncle's wretched gentlemen friends and investors, their chief antagonist being the lecherous Sir Mulberry Hawk (Edward Fox).

Thankfully, life isn't all sad, and who best to lighten up Nicholas and Smike's road trip than Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane), thespian extraordinaire, and his strange and wondrous entertaining troupe of friends (including Alan Cumming as Mr. Folair, a neglected performer intent on showing off his Highland Fling) and family, wherein Dame Edna Everage pops up in a dual role as Vincent's wife and, under his real name Barry Humphries, as the over-the-hill, broken-legged actor Mr. Leadville. Without determining their success, the lads become "actors" and put out the best holiday ham throughout the countryside.

The film's second half brings Nicholas back to London to rejoin his extended family and do battle with his unsentimental uncle and his rich and greedy friends. He befriends Ned and Charles Cheeryble (Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan), pleasant variations of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, who quickly employ the young Nickleby at an extremely advantageous salary, in a job which allows him to court his future wife, Madeline Bray (The Princess Diaries' Anne Hathaway). Of course, despite the worst intentions of the dastardly Ralph, vengeful Squeers, and comrade-in-harm Hawk, evil is put down and goodness triumphs. Shades of Shakespeare in Love, such a wonderful fairy tale ending!

Director-writer McGrath, an occasional actor in several Woody Allen films, tackled Jane Austen with comic dexterity with Emma (1996), bounces back in his third directorial outing from the absolutely dreadful Company Man, one of the worst films of 2000. Adapting the source material with the wit, whimsy, and passion it deserves, McGrath's cast brings it to life, and his crew adds depth to the effort, with strong camerawork and fluid tracking shots, a lovely score, some marvelous editing and blocking (used to particularly comic effect in a rescue sequence in which Nicholas stops Squeers from repatriating Smike back to the Yorkshire doldrums. The period production values add the necessary flavor, with Ralph Nickleby's home is a blend of doom and gloom (stuffed birds silently scream from the pins that penetrate their bodies), even foretelling the villain's ultimate comeuppance when the camera imprisons him between the bars of several large, mock birdcages.

The handsome Hunnam, last seen in Stephen Gaghan's scare piece Abandon but also well remembered in England for his turn in the original Queer as Folk, is fine fighting the good fight and gives a good cry when the narrative calls for it. The decent women roles (Hathaway and Garai) are really too condensed to register any range. Generally it's the comic talent, especially Lane and Tom Courtney (where has he been hiding?), the tragically frail (Bell), and the evil scoundrels (Plummer, Broadbent, and Stevenson) who register best with the audience. Courtney portrays the sympathetic Newman Noggs, Ralph Nickleby's red-nosed manservant caught between a bottle and a hard place.

In the end, it's sweet revenge, dignity regained, and a timeless story that makes Nicholas Nickleby an unheralded must-see film this holiday season.

Directed by:
Douglas McGrath

Starring:
Jamie Bell
Jim Broadbent
Tom Courtenay
Alan Cumming
Edward Fox
Romola Garai
Anne Hathaway
Barry Humphries
Charlie Hunnam
Nathan Lane
Christopher Plummer
Timothy Spall
Juliet Stevenson

Written by:
Douglas McGrath
Charles Dickens

Rated:
PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested.
Some material may
not be appropriate
for children.

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