2002 will earn but a single Dickens adaptation, a motion picture of Nicholas Nickleby, perhaps Dickens' least-read work and one of his most wandering (the novel being more than 800 pages long).
On a reported $10 million budget, Douglas McGrath (Company Man, Emma) hired a boatload of well-regarded actors and perfectly recreated early-1800s England, with special focus on the era's shoddy country boarding schools, which had conditions just above the level of prisons.
Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam) is the most handsome lad in all of Britain, a shocking-blond kid with a heart of gold. Too bad he's left penniless when his father dies, sending him and sister Kate (Ramola Garai) to London in search of financial aid from uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer). But Ralph will have none of it, shooing Nicholas off to become a teacher at one of the aforementioned boys' schools/slums and conspiring to marry Kate off to one of his grotesque, geriatric buddies.
For about 40 minutes we follow Nicholas as he learns firsthand of the appalling conditions at the school under the iron fist of Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent), eventually rescuing the crippled Smike (Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell) from a beating at Squeers' hands. This escape sets the latter two-thirds of the movie in motion, wherein Squeers tries to get vengeance by extorting Ralph for compensation and hunting down Nicholas and Smike.
While the first act is stellar and features exceptional performances from Hunnam and Broadbent, sparring all the while, the moment Nicholas leaves Squeers' school, the movie completely falls apart. Most heinous is a good half hour which is wholly wasted with an unlikely side story wherein Nicholas joins a traveling acting troupe (led by Nathan Lane and Alan Cumming in embarrassingly ham-fisted performances) and performs the lead in Romeo and Juliet in Liverpool. But soon enough he's off to London to reunite with his sister, and the whole affair is forgotten.
Once in London, the plot turns again on a series of wild improbabilities typical of Dickensian dramas, wherein secret family relationships are revealed, lifelong loves are found at first sight, the bad guys are vanquished, and everything ends happily ever after. The implausibility isn't so much surprising as it is merely disappointing.
McGrath has done a good job at adapting a difficult work and paring it down, but he definitely should have cut out the acting bit (despite it being good for a few chuckles) and focused on the machinations at work behind the scenes, all of which lead to the dramatic conclusion. These convolutions are given really short shrift, shown in speedy flashback to wrap up a movie that's about to hit 130 minutes in length. Sadly, it's the most interesting part of the film (the first act notwithstanding), but the quick attempt to tie up all the loose ends never really succeeds.
Nicholas Nickleby will be devoured by Dickens fans looking for holiday-time warm fuzzies, but next to vastly superior ancestors like Little Women and Sense And Sensibility, it's hard to really fall in love with the film.
"I'll burn yer hair off, pretty boy!"
Run time: 132 mins
In Theaters: Friday 27th June 2003
Box Office USA: $1.3M
Distributed by: United Artists
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Fresh: 95 Rotten: 28
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Douglas McGrath
Screenwriter: Douglas McGrath
Starring: Charlie Hunnam as Nicholas Nickleby, Nathan Lane as Vincent Crummles, Jim Broadbent as Mr. Wackford Squeers, Christopher Plummer as Ralph Nickleby, Jamie Bell as Smike, Anne Hathaway as Madeline Bray, Alan Cumming as Mr. Folair, Timothy Spall as Charles Cheeryble, Romola Garai as Kate Nickleby