Any film version of Nicholas Nickelby that casts Nathan Lane as theatrical impresario Vincent Crummles and Barry Humphries (in his Dame Edna drag incarnation) as Mrs. Crummles is clearly a Dickens of a departure from Masterpiece Theatre-dom. (In fact, I can’t completely suppress a smile just thinking about Alistair Cooke screening this.)
However, don’t get the idea that this is radical Dickens. Apart from this in-joke, it’s really not that much of a departure at all — at least on the surface. In adapting the great novel, writer/director Douglas McGrath has kept very close to the outline of the book and its myriad quirky characters. His major departure is actually more of an embellishment: At the very end of the film, McGrath uses the story as a springboard to redefine the meaning of family. McGrath’s tack makes perfect sense, causing the story to suddenly seem more relevant, and placing it squarely in the modern realm of otherwise diverse films like Lilo and Stitch and About a Boy.
In any other sense, Nicholas Nickelby is a very respectable and respectful version of the book — and that’s not a bad thing. Star-studded in the best sense (the cast reads like a Who’s Who of British Actors’ Equity, with a couple of Yanks tossed in), it’s a solidly mounted, well-acted film. How completely does McGrath create the world of Dickens? Let’s just say that the film opens on an astonishing crane shot that swoops down on the disenfranchised Nickelby family as they arrive in London to ask for help, then goes very low to angle up and frame them with the belching smokestacks of Industrial Revolution-era England.
McGrath relies heavily — and effectively — on all the crowd-pleasing, crowd-working Dickensian devices that made the author such a popular success in his day. (With his modern status as a classic writer, it’s easy to forget that Dickens was, in his day, very much a commercially minded, populist author and public figure.) The hero is almost impossibly heroic, the sympathetic characters almost impossibly sympathetic, the villain almost impossibly villainous and the quirky characters almost impossibly quirky. It was a good formula then, and it’s one that works now. The story is larger than life — it’s life made melodramatic and sprawling. But done with conviction, good humor and sincerity, as it is in McGrath’s film, it ultimately rings true in a way that more “realistic” approaches rarely do.
Reducing the 800-plus page novel to a tractable 131-minute running time was no small feat (though considerably less daunting than the one that faced the book’s first adapter back in 1903, when the novel was boiled down to a one-reeler!), yet McGrath has acquitted himself honorably. The movie preserves the illusion of fidelity to its source even while paring the source material down.
It’s no small feat either to preserve and make immediate Dickens’ now outdated societal concerns, but McGrath pulls it off. At the time of its publication, Nicholas Nickelby’s portrait of the boys school run by sadistic headmaster Wackford Squeers caused an uproar that resulted in legislation to try to stamp out such places. Those concerns seem fairly remote now, but the images of abused children sleeping on straw in what look like makeshift coffins are pretty indelible, and the suitably grim school has an atmosphere that makes the cold and filth seep into your bones. McGrath cleverly makes the school a disconcerting place as well through an unusual use of shock effects.
Like the novel, the film knows how to push all the right buttons. You’d have to be pretty hardened to not be appalled by the atrocities of Wackford Squeers (chalk up another fine performance by the indispensable Jim Broadbent), or to not be four-square behind Nicholas when he turns on the man. It’s a wise dramatist who knows when to leave well enough alone — and when the “old stuff” still works.
Nearly all the performances are exceptional. A few are surprising: Christopher Plummer gives one of his best portrayals in ages as Ralph Nickelby. Nathan Lane has never been so restrained, or so touching. Timothy Spall continues to expand his already impressive range as one of the Cherrybyle twins. Tom Courtenay is a splendid Newman Noggs. Edward Fox is an appropriately slimy Sir Mulberry Hawk. And Jamie Bell as the pitiable Smike finally finds a worthy character to follow his Billy Elliott.
The romantic leads might be rather bland, but then most of Dickens’ romantic leads come across that way. Charlie Hunnam makes an attractive Nicholas, but falters occasionally in his big scenes. Whenever he gets excited or has to shout, Hunnam evidences an almost tongue-tied quality that is distracting. And McGrath’s direction is not without its flaws. One moment, he’s amazingly creative; the next, he adopts a lazy approach, just sitting back and letting the action drift around in the frame. In at least one instance — Hawk’s attempted seduction of Kate Nickelby (Romola Garai) in a theater box — it’s damagingly clumsy, and the film briefly feels like a bad high-school play. However, most of Nicholas Nickelby is a fine, entertaining, moving, satisfying and occasionally exciting version of Dickens’ book. The film is most definitely worth your time. Unfortunately, it’s been so badly promoted that it’s apt to escape a lot of people’s notice. Hopefully, its audience will find it anyway. They won’t be sorry.