(director/writer: Douglas McGrath; screenwriter: based on the novel by Charles Dickens; cinematographer: Dick Pope; editor: Lesley Walker; music: Rachel Portman; cast: Charlie Hunnam (Nicholas Nickleby), Jim Broadbent (Wackford Squeers), Edward Fox (Sir Hawk), Christopher Plummer (Ralph Nickleby), Jamie Bell (Smike), Roger Ashton-Griffiths (Doctor), Alan Cumming (Actor, Falsir), Nathan Lane (Vincent Crummles), Tom Courtenay (Newman Noggs), Dame Edna Everage (Mrs. Crummles), Timothy Spall (Charles), Gerard Horan (Charles’s brother Ned), Romola Garai (Kate Nickleby), Anne Hathaway (Madeline Bray), Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Squeers), Hugh Mitchell (Young Nicholas), Andrew Havill (Nicholas’s Father), Stella Gonet (Nicholas’s Mother); Runtime: 138; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Simon Channing Williams/John N. Hart/Jeffrey Sharp; UA; 2002)
“This is a film tailor-made for those who when they were in high school would choose the Cliff-Notes over reading a full-length classic.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A less than striking presentation of the Charles Dickens tale of the misfortunes that overcomes a once prosperous Devonshire family after the patriarch dies broke in 19th century London. Director and writer Douglas McGrath (“Emma“/”Bullets Over Broadway“) sinks his teeth into Dicken’s 1,000-page tome and makes it more merry and whittles it down to a mere 138 minutes of celluloid. The film opens after Nicholas’s besieged father (Andrew Havill) dies broke because he was encouraged to speculate in business by his foolish wife (Stella Gonet), who was jealous of his moneylender brother Ralph’s (Christopher Plummer) huge success in speculation. With no money and no one else to turn to for help, the mother implores their father’s brother for help for her 19-year-old son Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam) and her teenage daughter Kate (Romola Garai).
The mean-spirited London-based cad gets Nicholas a job as an assistant to the headmaster in the Dotheboys Hall boarding school located in Yorkshire that is run by the cruel and malevolent one-eyed headmaster Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his equally cold-hearted wife (Juliet Stevenson). They treat the unwanted children and illegitimate urchins who are forced to attend such a sadistic place as if they were dirt, and beat and starve them at their pleasure. The one they take out most of their resentment on is a crippled boy named Smike (Jamie Bell), whose mysterious father stopped making payments soon after bringing him there some 12 years ago and Smike now receives no education but is forced into doing slave labor just to eat some slop and be sheltered in a bed that’s in a crate. The attractive Kate, like her mother, is forced to work as a dressmaker and endure her Uncle Ralph’s humiliations. In front of her uncle’s lecherous business acquaintances in their all-male gatherings, she’s forced to endure their sexual insults. The worst of the lot is a lecherous soul with a black heart named Sir Hawk (Edmund Fox), who corners her in the theater box and tries to rape her before she runs out. Uncle keeps her around because he thinks she’s a fine lure for business. The only one who helps Nicholas out in secret, is Ralph’s disgruntled clerk Newman Noggs (Courtenay).
After one beating too many on Smike, the good-hearted Nicholas turns on Squeers and whips him when he refuses to stop beating the unfortunate child, and the two runaway together and form a close bond promising to never part. Their adventure brings them to a traveling theater group run by Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane) and his friendly wife (Dame Edna Everage). It features an actor in a Scottish kilt (Cumming), who mugs it up for the camera. The runaways are happily engaged as actors, and seem to be on their way to recovery until word comes to Nicholas of the trouble sis is having with Hawk. He thereby quits the theater group and comes to London to defend her honor.
The remainder of the story becomes a battle Nicholas fights with his evil Uncle Ralph, whom he breaks away from while dedicating himself to supporting his family. Help comes when the eccentric lawyer brothers Charles (Spall) and Ned (Horan) give him a good job. Through them he meets the girl he falls in love with, Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway), who is destitute herself. When a damaging dark secret about Ralph is revealed, the meanie uncle gets his comeuppance while Nicholas and sister Kate find happiness with the mates they desire.
Dickens is most concerned with family values, and this film plays on that theme as it contrasts the good Nicholas Nickleby with his bad uncle. The Nicholas character is reduced to a one-dimensional role. He’s a nice guy with a high pitched, pompous sounding voice whose real tough character never shows through as he loses the power Dickens wrote for him in the novel. The film is less morose than the book, but it also is less everything that was worthy about the book that really mattered. This is a film tailor-made for those who when they were in high school would choose the Cliff-Notes over reading a full-length classic.
REVIEWED ON 12/27/2002 GRADE: C