You deserve a grain-of-salt warning before reading this review: Your friendly film critic really can't abide Charles Dickens, and "Nicholas Nickleby" is especially exemplary of everything that irks me about his work.
The characters in this tale of 19th Century woe are largely one-dimensional -- implausibly sweet and naive or absurdly ruthless and cruel without reason -- and they invite second-guessing to a distracting degree.
Nineteen years old and suddenly the head of his family after his father's death, the title character (played by the over-earnest Charlie Hunnam) reluctantly moves with his mother and sister from the quiet country cottage they can no longer afford to dirty, polluted, noisy, heartless London, seeking the help of Nicholas's rich, odious uncle (Christopher Plummer), who doesn't see why he should be burdened with helping his brother's family.
Why the Nicklebys cannot find any help or work in their local village, where we're told they're beloved by the community, is never explained. If their patriarch was such a swell guy, didn't he have any friends in town who could do them a kindness? Did they even ask? If not, why not? And why, at age 19 in the 19th Century, doesn't Nicholas have any marketable skills?
At any rate, this family of angelic souls find themselves in the foul city, beholden to the uncle who sends Nick away to help teach school at a nightmare boarding home for unwanted boys while his mother works as a seamstress and his pretty sister is used as sexual bait to lure lecherous business partners into the uncle's realm.
Plummer is superb as the severe, malignant Ralph Nickleby, infusing the character with layer upon layer of flawed humanity. But the same cannot be said for anyone else -- especially the slovenly, horribly abusive orphanage master Wackford Squeers and his puritanical wife, played with insufferably cartoonish callousness by the normally sublime and multifaceted Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson.
These two roles are nothing if not indicative of the kind of off-the-charts Dickensian caricature that makes the author's stories play so platitudinously. "What possible reason could a boy have to run away from my establishment?" Mrs. Squeers screams and seethes while beating the daylights out of a boy who didn't try to run away.
But I would like to give credit where it's due, and writer-director Douglas McGrath clearly has as much of an affinity for this material as he did when adapting Jane Austen's "Emma" into a marvelous movie in 1996. His faithful re-creation of the grime and graft of Dickensian London is copiously palpable, and most of his talented cast members (including Timothy Spall, Alan Cumming, Tom Courtenay and Barry Humphries) are well matched to their roles -- even if their performances are all on the histrionic side.
The exception is, unfortunately, the lead. Hunnam (who co-starred with Katie Holmes in the forgettable psychological thriller "Abandon") lacks personality as Nicholas Nickleby. His line delivery is up and down in tone like a high school theater student who has memorized the rhythms of a Shakespeare play without understanding the words. His Nick has no depth beyond being a vessel for the moral of a story.
Dickens protagonists are often milksops who spend 3/4ths of their stories building up the courage to do the right thing, and this colorless rendition of Nickleby is no exception. After far too long, he finally takes the upper hand against Squeers and leaves the boys' home with a crippled, oft-beaten and virtually enslaved orphan named Smike (Jamie Bell, "Billy Elliot") in tow.
After a short spell making a decent living with a theater company in Liverpool ("You could write plays!" declares a flamboyant thespian performed by Nathan Lane within minutes of meeting our hero and without knowing anything about him), Nicholas and Smike return to London at the urging of his sister.
Why he cannot send for her and his mother and stay where he has a good job isn't addressed. Nor are the reasons he has trouble finding work once back in London (all we see is Nicholas crossing out classified ads). But eventually he gets a job with a pair of eccentric brothers (doing what, the film does not say) and falls in love at first sight with a beautiful girl (Anne Hathaway, "The Princess Diaries") whose mean, crusty, infirm old father has sold her into marriage to one of the rich men who accosted Nicholas's sister.
He attends to sickly, simple Smike, who is supposedly his best friend even though Nicholas keeps him in the same rags he's worn since the orphanage. He's there to see his uncle get his fableistic comeuppance. And everything else a Dickens story needs to reach an inevitably allegorical finale falls obligingly into place with faithful precision but without much soul.
Had the whole film taken on the complexity that Plummer applies to his villain, this 7th film adaptation of "Nicholas Nickleby" (four theatrical releases, three for TV) might have transcended the simplistic limits of its source material.
In all likelihood, Dickens fans will not agree with this assessment, and I freely acknowledge my bias. But in the past I've found merit in adaptations of Dickens novels I never liked to begin with. This film -- while made with much care and affection for the material -- fails to finesse something more sophisticated from its anachronous, black-and-white, Sunday school view of virtue, temperance and integrity.
Run time: 132 mins
In Theaters: Friday 27th June 2003
Box Office USA: $1.3M
Distributed by: United Artists
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Fresh: 95 Rotten: 28
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: 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