Director : Douglas McGrath
Screenplay : Douglas McGrath (based on the novel by Charles Dickens)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Charlie Hunnam (Nicholas Nickleby), Christopher Plummer (Ralph Nickleby), Tom Courtenay (Newman Noggs), Jamie Bell (Smike), Anne Hathaway (Madeline Bray), Romola Garai (Kate Nickleby), Nathan Lane (Vincent Crummles), Dame Edna Everage (Mrs. Crummles), Jim Broadbent (Wackford Squeers), Hugh Mitchell (Young Nicholas), Stella Gonet (Mrs. Nickleby)
Charles Dickens’ third novel, Nicholas Nickleby, weighs in at well over 800 pages, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s famous stage version ran for eight and a half hours. Thus, it is one of many delightful miracles that writer/director Douglas McGrath has so efficiently and effectively pared down his source material to craft a consistently engaging and frequently hilarious film version that runs just over two hours and feels half that.
McGrath’s Nicholas Nickleby is spry and funny—a real joy that clearly comes from someone who’s worked in such divergent arenas as cowriting a film with Woody Allen (1994’s Bullets Over Broadway) and adapting Jane Austen (1996’s Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow). McGrath takes what could have been dour, social-realist Dickens and, without ever betraying the source material or the social lessons built into it, reminds us of the inherent humor. Dickens’ characters tend to be written in great, broad strokes of goodness and evil, and McGrath uses that to his advantage, never trying to add unnecessary complications, but instead relying on the real pleasure of watching good people win in the end through perseverance, wit, and a little good luck while bad people reap the punishment of their wretched deeds.
And no character could be more wretched than Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer), the mean-spirited, money-grubbing uncle who is the cause of all the problems in young Nicholas Nickleby’s (Charlie Hunnam) life. When Nicholas’ beloved father, a country gentleman, dies, he, his mother (Stella Gonet), and his sister Kate (Romola Garai) travel to London seeking Uncle Ralph’s help. Ralph grudgingly obliges by getting Nicholas a job in a boys’ school run by the one-eyed, comically sadistic Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent, hamming it up like the old pro that he is). There he meets poor Smike (Jamie Bell, Billy Ellliot), a crippled orphan who has been turned into an indentured servant by Squeers. Meanwhile, Kate and Mrs. Nickleby are put to menial work in London, and Uncle Ralph drags Kate along to various dinners with his lecherous friends where he allows the horny old goats to make rude advances on her.
As we can expect from Dickens, there is a definite level of misery here, but McGrath tells the story with such panache and assurance that all will turn out right in the end that even the most grueling scenes never feel overbearing. The production design by Eve Stewart (Topsy-Turvy) is appropriately bleak (downtown London on the eve of the Industrial Revolution), ostentatious (Uncle Ralph’s house), and picturesque (the Nicklebys’ country house) in all the right places. Yet, unlike some costume films, McGrath never lets the mise-en-scène overwhelm the characters; this is first foremost a story about people, good and bad, and he never lets us forget it.
For that reason, casting was crucial for both the believability of the characters and the maintenance of the comical tone, and the film scores in virtually every role. As the titular character, Charlie Hunnam (Queer as Folk) clearly recognizes that he’s playing the kind of unstained Dickensian hero that needs no embellishment (his bland-blonde good looks almost say it all). He is forthright, strong, and delivers at just the right moments. He is the very inverse of his uncle: While Nicholas strives to achieve material gain for the benefit of the other members of his family, Ralph works only for himself, purposefully failing to aid his family members even when they are clearly in need.
Christopher Plummer clearly relished his turn as the cruel Uncle Ralph, who is easily one of the most memorable screen villains this year. He plays Ralph as a man with no conscience, who thinks only of his own upward mobility. He is the kind of unsentimental man who punches holes in everyone else’s dreams for his own gain. He sets his sights on destroying Nicholas not only because he feels personally slighted by his nephew, but also because Nicholas represents everything he hates: sentimentality, family solidarity, honesty, etc. Yet, as good as Plummer is when chewing the scenery, his performance is at its best when Uncle Ralph has to face his own demise, and Plummer very nearly makes you feel sorry for the money-grubbing cad.
McGrath has a good deal of fun filling the flamboyant supporting roles, as well, particularly Nathan Lane as Vincent Crummles, the overenthusiastic leader of a half-baked drama troupe who takes Nicholas and Smike under his wing after they escape from Squeers’ clutches. He also made the subversively brilliant decision to cast Barry Humphries in his Dame Edna Everage persona to play Mrs. Crummles, thus creating an amusing gay subtext. His decision to cast Alan Cumming in a bit role as one of the Crummles’ troupe who doesn’t get to indulge his specialty for dance on stage isn’t as funny as it was likely meant to be, but it’s a small misstep.
As Nicholas Nickleby progresses, McGrath’s narrative efficiency becomes even more striking as he manages to pile together numerous subplots, including Nicholas’ romance with a young woman named Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway, The Princess Diaries), whose ailing father has connections back to Uncle Ralph. The amount of Machiavellian backroom antics is also quite extraordinary, as Nicholas gets constant information about his uncle’s various schemes from Newman Noggs (Tom Courtenay), Uncle Ralph’s blatantly disloyal servant.
While many feel that yet another Dickens adaptation is for the PBS crowd, Nicholas Nickleby achieves the small miracle of crossing boundaries that few other costume drama do. McGrath stays true to the source, but reimagines it for a younger crowd who can appreciate subtext and sly humor while also relishing the simple joys of Dickensian good versus evil without trying to make it unnecessarily ironic.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick