If the beginning of Nicholas Nickleby reminds you of Emma, don’t be too alarmed: that music is by Emma composer Rachel Portman and both films were directed by Douglas McGrath. It’s a tenderly artistic and quaint opening, but sadly, there the similarities end. Nicholas Nickleby is a six hour play based on Charles Dickens’ 420 page (per Amazon.com) novel, filled with travail, pathos, zillions of characters, and some heady themes, whereas Emma is much simpler and too the point. As film adaptations go, condensing 420 pages into 108 minutes of screen time is both unfair to the screenwriter and to the audience. It is not at all surprising that I and my companions felt that much information was glossed over or missing outright, and occasionally the filmmakers took the supposed reader familiarity for granted.
Actor Charlie Hunnam plays adult Nicholas, who oozes angelic beauty and goodness in a surprisingly off-putting way. One of my companions wisely noted that in Dickens’ world of stock characters, such a noble and selfless hero such as Nickleby would be portrayed a someone very handsome. Hunnam is an alarming soup of the qualities Val Kilmer, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and Cary Elwes most likely to be valued by Calvin Klein. Far too pretty even for commercial use, it was surprisingly distracting, and not in a swoony “he’s so dreamy” kind of way. Hunnam’s humble performance is buoyed by an unbelievable cast of supporting players (wisely advertised on the poster, or else we would not have gone). All the best moments belong to these fine actors. Here’s the menu to tempt you: Juliet Stevenson, Jim Broadbent, Jamie Bell, Nathan Lane, Alan Cumming, Dame Edna Everage, Tom Courtenay, Christopher Plummer, Anne Hathaway, the charming pair of Timothy Spall & Gerard Horan, and even Harry Potter’s David Bradley.
Christopher Plummer chews his opulent scenery as evil Uncle Ralph Nickleby. A troupe of actors including Alan Cumming, led by Mr. & Mrs. Crummles (Lane & Everage) bring much needed pleasure to the dismal squalor of the lives of these unfortunate, good people. Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) lurches sweetly and determinedly through the role of hapless Smike. Most deliciously, with nasty grit and gusto, Jim Broadbent digs into the role of Squeers, the head of the wretched Dotheboys home. Squeers’ wife (Juliet Stevenson) is, if possible, even more cruel. Such affable actors in such wicked parts, it’s a delight to see them play and relish their squalid roles. Unfortunately, all their sublime little performances could not make up for the glaring omissions of key plot issues, not cut the treacle of Hunnam’s dimply beaming puss.
Like many of Dickens’ tales, Nicholas Nickleby uses the injustices and social ills of the time to draw clear morality tales of karma and devotion. Suspending disbelief is usually no problem, but the lickety slpit treatment of a deeply complex work comes off as frivolous and very black and white.
Much as I wanted to enjoy this film, the distraction of near-constantly wondering “what just happened?” and the oppressive beauty of Nicholas prevented me from being fully satisfied. Why was his being too pretty a problem? He twinkled so, he was never dirty, and his behavior was so dashedly pure, I couldn’t trust him one bit. (Ironic, and not Dickens’ intent, but true). Call it my modern perspective, but no one is that good and that pretty; no one can look like that (especially in the shorthand of film) and have a need to develop any tender sensibilities or a personality unless it is to beguile. Maybe it’s my own problem, but the supporting cast alone makes it worth a look.
MPAA Rating PG
Release date 12/27/02
Time in minutes 108
Director Douglas McGrath
Studio MGM/United Artists