A Winning Combination
In addition to those many film versions of A Christmas Carol, most other novels by Charles Dickens have also been made into movies. To me, none have been more successfully transferred to the screen than Douglas McGrath’s humorous and heartfelt adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. Because of this filmmaker’s brilliant work directing Jane Austen’s Emma, I had great expectations for his new movie. Nevertheless, I still found myself in awe of the entertaining way McGrath depicted the numerous characters from Dickens’s lengthy novel -- while, at the same time, emphasizing the renowned author’s humanistic social values.
It should have been a daunting task for McGrath. After all, the Royal Shakespeare’s production of "Nicholas Nickleby" ran 9 and ˝ hours long. "Strangely enough, though," McGrath recalls, " as I was watching it, I saw there was a fairly simple way to cut it down and make a good movie by just following Nicholas's story – the heart of the story – which is a perfectly gripping and wonderful tale in itself."
And so it is. Pure of heart, young Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) emerges as one of the noblest characters now on film. Facing a series of heartbreaking situations, which start with the death of his dear father, this teenager rises above it all as he struggles against evil and tries to reunite with his mother and sister. His only flaw? A fiery temper when injustices against children go too far. (What did you expect? This is a Dickensian world, so children have to suffer.)
Two villains give Nicholas the most cause to be angry – his greedy Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer) and the wicked Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent), headmaster of Dotheboys Hall, a dreary institution where Nicholas serves as an assistant teacher. Sinking their teeth into these nasty roles, Plummer and Broadbent bring two of Dickens’s creepiest characters to life with chilling realism. And Juliet Stevenson almost matches their incredible projection of evil with a memorable portrayal of Mrs. Squeers, a sadistic woman who takes great pleasure in abusing the boys at Dotheboys Hall, especially a handicapped lad named Smike (Jamie Bell) who becomes Nicholas’s best friend. I wanted to cheer out loud whenever Nicholas put any of these evildoers in their place.
Happily, Nicholas also meets many goodhearted and amusing people on his journey to manhood. He joins a troupe of hilarious actors led by Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane – perfectly cast here). "They bring a sense of color and lightness and fun," Lane explains. Standing out among the unusual thespians is Alan Cumming as Mr. Folair, a silly man who wants everyone to see his "Highland Fling" -- no matter what play is on the bill. Later, Nicholas is hired by Charles Cheeryble (Timothy Spall) and his brother, kind men who pay him much more than he expects. And Uncle Ralph’s grumpy butler (Tom Courtenay, displaying the best frowns of the year) turns out to be a lifesaver for Nicholas.
Neither Dickens nor McGrath ignore another important element of a good story – romance. Although Nicholas finds "his other heart" in the lovely form of Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway), he must overcome obstacles to win her. Both Hunnam and Hathaway, quite charming in their scenes together, show considerable potential for stardom.
After seeing Nicholas Nickleby, I felt refreshed and hopeful. Not many movies these days have that kind of impact on me. I wonder if McGrath could be persuaded to take on Bleak House, my favorite Dickens novel. If so, I predict another winning combination for moviegoers.
(Released by United Artists/MGM and rated "PG" for thematic material involving some violent action and a childbirth scene.)