Every family needs a hero.
The transformation from 800 pages of classic Dickens to two hours of 21st century screen time was always going to be a challenge. Happily, Douglas McGrath (who previously directed Jane Austen's Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow) has turned it into a triumph, thanks to judicious editing, an obvious affection for the work and a pragmatic approach to the process of adaptation.
The young hero of the title (Charlie Hunnam) takes his sister (Romola Garai) and mother to London from the country after the death of his father, in the hope of the family receiving financial assistance from his uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer). However, the cold and malicious Ralph has other ideas and promptly sends Nicholas to teach in a grim, northern boarding school run by the horrifically abusive Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his wife (Juliet Stevenson). Here he meets Smike (Jamie Bell), a crippled young orphan, and a series of adventures ensue.
It has probably already become apparent that there are a lot of 'key' characters in this film, but with a cast of such calibre, this is a pleasure rather than a drawback. And despite the novel's and so also the film's episodical nature, the brisk pace of the narrative will easily hold your attention.
While Hunnam's accent occasionally wavers, he brings a straightforward, sympathetic appeal to the central character which is superbly countered by the hostility in many of those around him. Plummer is darkly sinister as Ralph Nickleby and Broadbent is frequently terrifying as Squeers. Romola Garai rescues with some considerable spirit the potentially dull and thankless role of Nicholas' proud sister Kate, while Jamie Bell turns in a reliable and sensitive performance as the ailing Smike.
Douglas McGrath handles well the constant balancing act between menace and frivolity in setting and tone as the story develops. We are presented with entertaining comedy and convincing drama, in a way which is both emotionally satisfying and reassuringly Dickensian.
This is a well-crafted, vibrant piece of cinema through which you will enter a fascinating world. Far from appealing only to the more diligent students of English Literature, Nicholas Nickleby is a must for anyone interested in good quality popular film-making.
Screenings of this film:
|2003/2004 Spring Term – (35mm)|