Nicholas Nickleby (2002)
Charles Dickens, like William Shakespeare, is one of those reliable authors to whom filmmakers can turn when they have a desire to produce something with a classical bent. The length and complexity of many of Dickens' novels makes them a challenge to adapt into motion picture screenplays (the ideal format for them is the television mini-series). Nicholas Nickleby is especially problematic. Not only is the book a gargantuan 800+ pages (depending on font size), but it is rather… shall we say… slow.
Writer/director Douglas McGrath, who gave a similar treatment to Emma six years ago, has successfully condensed Nicholas Nickleby to the point where it can fit into a time span of less than two and one-quarter hours without doing irreparable damage to the story's essence. The narrative shows occasional hiccups, but, considering how it has been shoehorned, it is reasonably clear. The characters, while losing some of their depth, are nevertheless well-defined. And the pace has been greatly quickened. Dickens' book is an excellent means to aid the onset of sleep; McGrath's movie zips along. Yet, despite the differences, this still feels like Dickens, perhaps because the best things about Nicholas Nickleby remain, including the uniquely Dickensian setting (19th century England) and characters.
The title character is played by British TV actor Charlie Hunnam, whose good looks prove not to be a detriment to his ability to play the 19-year old only son of a recently deceased country gentleman. When Nicholas' father dies, leaving behind a legacy of debt, the young man is forced to travel with his mother and sister, Kate (Romola Garai), to London to seek the assistance of Nicholas' uncle, Ralph (Christopher Plummer). A notorious miser with little concern for his poorer relations, Ralph nevertheless appears to show signs of humanity by securing a position for Nicholas as the assistant headmaster at a rural boys' school, working for Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent). Soon, however, Nicholas learns that his uncle has given him an unbearably odious job – Squeers is a sadist who delights in punishing the children in his charge. One day, when Squeers is beating the crippled boy Smike (Jamie Bell), Nicholas loses patience with the headmaster and turns the cane on him. He then departs, taking Smike with him. This action enrages Ralph, exacerbating his already prickly relationship with Nicholas and encouraging Ralph to take revenge upon Kate, who is under his "protection."
McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby is set up as a struggle of good, as personified by Nicholas, against evil, as represented by Ralph. Each of these characters has various allies, but the final struggle is between the two of them. In the acting department, Christopher Plummer is vastly superior to Hunnam, who gives a straightforward but unspectacular portrayal of Nicholas. Plummer essays Ralph like Scrooge – sinister, nasty, miserly, and driven exclusively by base emotions and desires. The difference is that, while one dramatic night results in Scrooge's redemption, there is no such light at the end of the tunnel for Ralph. (Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby a few years before A Christmas Carol.) The supporting players - including Jim Broadbent as the oily, vicious Squeers; Anne Hathaway as Madeline Bray, the other half of Nicholas' heart; and Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell as Smike - represent a strong group of secondary actors. Nathan Lane, Alan Cumming, and Timothy Spall also have small parts.
The progression of the story is somewhat episodic, as is characteristic of many of Dickens' tales. Purists and die-hard aficionados of the novel may be dismayed by the manner in which it has been adapted, with all of the fat trimmed off (and, as I'm sure some will comment, some of the meat and bone with it), but, for a general movie-going audience, Nicholas Nickleby works. This is the engaging story of an upright man's quest to protect his family, find love, and see justice done. As a means to bring a classic novel to the attention of a modern audience, McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby is a success.