Does the world really need another film adaptation of a Dickens classic? Douglas McGrath, director of the latest adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby,” seems to think so.
The story revolves around the 19-year-old title character who is left penniless after his father’s death. With his mother and sister in tow, Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) heads to London to seek pecuniary aid from his wealthy, cruel Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer). There, the family is separated, and while Nicholas is sent to teach at the horrid boys Dotheby’s Academy, his sister (Romola Garai) is tossed into the arms of Uncle Ralph’s slimy gentlemen friends.
The plot conforms to typical Dickens convention — young man sets out into world to win fortune, reunite family, and find true love despite a cast of ne’er-do-wells waiting to pounce on him. Cue the swelling musical score, toss in a couple of top hats and frilly dresses and you’ve got an epic, right? Well, not quite.
The film is but a Cliffs Notes version of the classic novel. It snips any depth from the characters, and they resemble the puppets portrayed in the opening title sequence. “Nicholas Nickleby” moves at a brusque pace, steam-rolling over subplots and stumbling clumsily between its different locales. Though crammed with the verbose dialogue characteristic of Dickens, the film is choppy.
In fact, some of the film’s better parts are snippets of narrative description that are lifted from the pages of the novel verbatim. Unfortunately, instead of using the book as a springboard to bring the story to life, the film simply acts as a backdrop for lengthy voiceovers.
McGrath’s “Nicholas Nickleby” is not the first adaptation of the classic novel. There is the classic 1948 British feature and the Emmy Award-winning televised version of the legendary nine-and-a-half-hour Broadway adaptation. McGrath’s film does offer a cast of up-and-coming as well as established stars. Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) lurches through the film as the one-eyed headmaster of Dotheby’s. Other notables include a limping and abused boy named Smike (Jamie Bell), and Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane), the proprietor of an itinerant troupe of players. Despite the star-studded cast, the acting is hammy and melodramatic.
What saves the film is its luminous cinematography. The film looks great, thanks to the elegant camerawork of Dick Pope. “Nicholas Nickleby” is at its best when capturing landscapes of rolling English countryside or when the camera floats over industrious, bustling London like so much smoke.
Like all Dickens novels, the film ties up neatly at the end with its ultimate message a legitimate one — not to take happiness for granted. But “Nicholas Nickleby” is a mediocre adaptation and is recommended for viewing only to those desperately seeking a cinematic plot synopsis of the Dickens original.