The consummate storytelling and richly drawn characters of one of literature’s greatest chroniclers of the human condition make Douglas McGrath’s adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby” a delightful experience. The sacrifices of condensing Dickens’ massive novel to standard feature length are discernable, especially in the title character’s discovery of love. But while it’s told in conventional fashion, the heart of this tale of a young man’s quest to rescue his family from villainy and misfortune is lovingly rendered by a mostly superlative cast and with an entertaining balance of humor and pathos. The vogue for period literary adaptations may have waned, but the MGM release should strike receptive holiday family audiences before segueing to a long life in home entertainment formats.
First published in serial form in 1839, Dickens’ novel has been adapted into three previous features — the best known of them the 1947 British version directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and starring Cedric Hardwicke and Stanley Holloway — two miniseries, a telefilm and a celebrated Royal Shakespeare Co. production in the early ’80s that ran nine and a half hours. Undertaking a far more radical job of pruning and restructuring than he did with Jane Austen’s “Emma,” McGrath whittles down the 700-plus page tome to focus on the principal theme of how the absence of a strong family connection can foster evil. Eliminating or drastically reducing a host of characters and narrative digressions, McGrath centers the film squarely on the volatile rapport between Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) and his cruel Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer).
Bumped forward from its original 1830s setting to the 1850s in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, the story takes an unsentimental look at youths forced to make their own way in a world fraught with adversity.
Such is the case of Nicholas, whose gentleman father dies penniless after some unwise financial speculation, leaving the 19-year-old boy to fend for his mother (Stella Gonet) and sister Kate (Romola Garai). Quitting their country home for London, they approach well-heeled banking investor Uncle Ralph for help. He places Mrs. Nickleby and Kate in employment and sets up Nicholas with a teaching job at a Yorkshire boarding school for unwanted boys run by abusive Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his sadistic hag of a wife (Juliet Stevenson).
Appalled by the Squeers’ inhumane treatment of their charges, Nicholas stands up to the schoolmaster as he flogs Smike (Jamie Bell), a timid boy bullied over the years into a state of cowering submission.
The two run away together, finding shelter with a colorful troupe of traveling players headed by flamboyantly theatrical Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane) and his equally fruity wife (Barry Humphries). This section represents the comic high point of the film, with Lane and Humphries clearly relishing Dickens’ amusing dialogue. Further laughs are provided by Alan Cumming as a frustrated thesp eager to show off his highland fling, and Eileen Walsh as the Crummles’ talentless, plain daughter.
Story becomes less buoyant when Nicholas and Smike continue to London to deal with the former’s family troubles. Sister Kate has been placed in a compromising position by the lascivious attentions of Sir Mulberry Hawk (Edward Fox), a banking crony of Uncle Ralph, whom Nicholas confronts angrily about the degradation he has brought upon the family. This marks the beginning of a festering war between the two. Nicholas reclaims the family’s independence from his uncle, obtaining work with the portly and doting Cheeryble brothers (Timothy Spall, Gerard Horan).
To strike back at his nephew’s effrontery, Ralph manipulates Squeers into a kidnap attempt on the now gravely ill Smike, who has become like a brother to Nicholas. He also orchestrates a bid to rob the boy of his sweetheart Madeline (Anne Hathaway) by promising to erase her father’s debt in exchange for her marriage to Hawk.
But Nicholas gets inside information on Ralph’s imperiled business empire from his uncle’s boozing, cranky manservant Newman Noggs (Tom Courtenay) and uncovers an incident from the past that forces his uncle to shed his arrogance and confront his pain.
McGrath’s approach is old-fashioned but appealing, using a novelistic style that relies on voiceover to get through much of the initial exposition. His script captures the scope, humor and compassion of Dickens’ novel and drives the picaresque story along at a lively clip. The running time of more than two hours zips by without any significant dips, propelled by Rachel Portman’s lovely, unemphatic score.
It’s in the blossoming of Nicholas’ romantic interest in Madeline more than anywhere else that the heavily abridged nature of the work sacrifices nuance. While “Princess Diaries” star Hathaway is quietly luminous in the role, the audience knows too little of her character to generate much emotion.
Kate, too, is relegated to the narrative sidelines, with Nicholas and Smike figuring as the only fully developed younger characters. And with the exception of Bell (“Billy Elliot”), touching as the gentle innocent who briefly discovers a sense of family and unrequited love, the junior cast members are considerably outclassed by their more seasoned colleagues.
The pretty-boy looks of Hunnam, best known as the high schooler kicking down the closet door in the original British version of “Queer as Folk,” may be a valuable teen-marketing aid, but he too often seems stiff and self-conscious, becoming marginally more convincing only in anger. While American audiences may not pick up on it, Hunnam’s accent betrays a northern origin rather than the Home County Queen’s English that Nicholas should be speaking.
Rest of the ensemble delivers superb characterizations, often veering mischievously over the top as with Broadbent and Stevenson, who juggle humor and horror, introducing giddy sexual overtones into their rapport that make the ghastly couple even more unseemly. Here too, with the Squeers and their two vile children, McGrath successfully underlines how even the most seemingly rancid family can function as a harmonious unit.
Likewise the Crummles, with Lane and Humphries having a royal good time, the latter doubling as a physically impeded Romeo; and the Cheeryble brothers, played like a fussily paternal Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
Courtenay makes an incisive impression as a man embittered by his situation but not averse to using his position to do good, while Fox is all haughtiness and gentlemanly sleaze. The standout performance arguably is Plummer’s, his cold aloofness and absolute indifference to the needs or feelings of others masterfully peeled away to expose a potent sense of the man’s tragic emotional hollowness.
Dick Pope’s widescreen lensing adopts a stately, classical look, as does Eve Stewart’s production design. This is most efficient in communicating the grime and gloom of Dickens’ world in the Yorkshire boarding school or the squalid chaos of the London streets, and the cold deadness of Ralph’s home, appropriately filled with stuffed animals and skeletons. Ruth Myers’ finely detailed costumes help define the characters with tidy economy.