Nicholas Nickleby

Although it may not be the best adaptation of a Dickens novel, Douglas McGrath's version of Nicholas Nickleby may be the most fun. McGrath (Emma, Company Man) directed and adapted Nickleby, and his primary decision was to pare down the script to focus more on the title character and less on the many supporting characters. To this end, he gathered an impressive cast of actors (primarily from across the pond) and infused his version with much wit and warmth. This also serves to highlight many good small performances which may have lost some of their luster if the actor was on screen for a longer time (how often can one say it is a good thing to have Nathan Lane in a film?). It does feel a tad superficial at times, but is sure to leave a smile on all faces. With Dickens as source material, it ensures the inclusion of all sorts of grand themes and unrevealed secrets.

Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnan, Abandon, What Happened to Harold Smith?) and his sister and mother go to live with their uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer, A Beautiful Mind, Ararat), an evil miserly rich man. Ralph is everything Nicholas' father is not, greedy, rude, uncaring, and everything else that signifies something evil. Ralph ships Nicholas off to teach at a 'boarding school' run by the violent Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent, Gangs of New York, Iris). Nicholas escapes with Smike (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliot) and the two join a drama troupe led by Vincent Crummles (Lane, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Stuart Little 2) and his wife (Barry Humphries aka Dame Edna Everage, Spice World, Welcome to Woop Woop). He makes his way back to London when he learns that Ralph has nefarious plans for his sister Kate (Romola Garai, The Last of the Blonde Bombshells). At this point, Nicholas decides he needs freedom from his uncle, who decides that Nicholas must die.

Even with his pruning, there is a lot of plot for McGrath to cover, so things move quickly. The tone of the movie remains relatively light, with lots of unexpected humor although there are many darker aspects to the film. This also gives Nicholas Nickleby a Masterpiece Theater-lite feel, because it looks sumptuous but is missing the 'stiff' feeling of their productions. The acting and language are much more natural, making this film easily accessible to audiences who would normally shun Dickens. Above all, the actors are what makes Nicholas Nickleby shine. This is Hunnan's highest profile role to date. McGrath doesn't require him to do that much, but he is nice. Plummer is smashing as the villain, and Bell is doing his best to eliminate his image of a prancing lower classman. And as good as the primary actors are, it is the supporting characters that really give Nicholas Nickleby life. They step in for short amounts of time, helping to fully realize McGrath's vision of certain settings, be it a decrepit school, gaudy drama troupe, or lavish mansion. Actors like Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries), Alan Cumming (Spy Kids 2), Timothy Spall (All or Nothing), Juliet Stevenson (Food of Love), and especially Tom Courtenay (Last Orders) are all extremely fun to watch, and appear on screen for an all-to-brief amount of time.

Mongoose Rates It: Really Good.
1 hour, 48 minutes, Rated PG for thematic material involving some violence and a childbirth scene.

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