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Nicholas Nickleby

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Nicholas Nickleby

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jamie Bell
Director: Douglas McGrath
Rated: PG
RunTime: 132 Minutes
Release Date: December 2002
Genres: Comedy, Drama, Romance


*Also starring: Anne Hathaway, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Tom Courtenay, Hugh Mitchell, Gerard Horan, Romola Garai, Nathan Lane, Christopher Plummer



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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Director Douglas McGrath ("Emma"), who tackled the nearly- impossible task of reducing Dickens's popular novel, "Nicholas Nickleby," to just 130 minutes, believes that the author is the world's greatest storyteller. Why so? In his introduction to the Penguin paperback, released at the time of the opening of his new movie, he cites plot, character, dialogue, and Dickens's obsession with making the world a kinder place. Storyteller, no doubt, when you consider that England's most important Nineteenth Century novelist is concerned not only with keeping our eye on the central theme but on shooting the breeze with stories within stories whether or not any of them has anything to do with the book's spine.

You couldn't convince me of Dickens's worth when I was back in prep school, a snobbish place based on the British idea of education, which consisted of calling classes "forms," the cafeteria "the commons," and eschewed the kinds of books we wanted to read such as Orwell's 99-page "Animal Farm" rather than the 1,000-page, small-print "Nicholas Nickleby." Now that I've advanced in years I probably would still opt to do book reports on "Animal Farm," but I've come to appreciate the delectably long- winded Dickensians tracts especially when the thousand pages can be reduced to a comfortably brief whirl of celluloid.

Critics, pretended that they've all seen the Royal Shakespeare Company's nine-hour stage version of what we in prep school called "Nick-Nick," are likely to say that none of the half-dozen movie versions (dating back to 1903) can compare. Nonetheless Mr. McGrath's film is a pure holiday delight and, I dare say, fit for a pleasant diversion on the big screen 'most any time of the year.

In whittling down the book, eliminating minor character whose names are so peculiar you'd think that the author was spoofing his society-Gregsby, Graymarsh, Cobbey, Mobbs, Belvawney, Grudden, Curdle, Pyke, Knag, Mulberry Hawk, Bobster, Petowker; but keeping others with equally quaint names like Wackford Squeers, Newman Noggs, Smike and Bray-McGrath McGrath emphasizes the comic touches to keep Mr. Dickens smiling in his grave. After all, you can't better society by some dull preaching: you have to keep the audience in their seats first, keep 'em smiling and laughing. Then throw in the compassionate liberalism.

Thematically, Dickens is most concerned with the glories of family, but not in the banal and insincere concept of politicians like Dan Quayle but in the idea of the extended family, the family of human beings rather than simply those who blood types we share. At the center of the book and the movie is the title character (Charlie Hunnam), happily living with his sister Kate (Romola Garai) and mother (Stella Gonet) in a Devonshire cottage surrounded by green, then becoming as lost as an Appalachian coal miner suddenly thrust alone into New York's Rockefeller Center. When Nickleby's father (Andrew Havill) dies when the boy is nineteen, Nicholas goes to London with his sister Kate and mother, hoping to get aid from Mr. Nickleby's brother Ralph (Christopher Plummer)-a moneylender and scrooge who proves to be the chief villain of the drama. Ralph gets Nicholas a job as assistant to the one-eyed Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent), who operates a terrible boarding school in Yorkshire into which cast-aways are deposited, starved and beaten. When Squeers and his wife (Juliet Stevenson) beat the dickens out of one crippled castaway, Smike (Jamie Bell), Nicholas "adopts" the lad and runs away with him in search of adventure. At this point the road-and-buddy movie begins with adventures designed to restore Nicholas to a sense of family coupled with a need to avenge himself on his uncle. While the marriage of Nicholas to one Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway) and of his sister Kate to a decent guy of her own are inevitable in a holiday story that must have a happy ending, Nicholas enjoys particularly delightful times on the way especially with a theatrical troupe headed by Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane), including his wife (Dame Edna Everage), and a Highland dancer played by the always amusing Alan Cummings.

"Nicholas Nickleby" could be the breakthrough performance of handsome Charlie Hunnam, whom we left not so long ago for dead, stoned at the hands of Katie Holmes in Stephen Gaghan's "Abandon." The trouble is that Nicholas is such a one- dimensional sweet guy that Mr. Hunnam does not get a chance from the script to strut his stuff. Sure, he raises his fist once against a rich investor, Newman Noggs (Tom Courtenay) who insulted his sister by hitting on her shamelessly during a performance of "Romeo and Juliet," and he gets the drop on the schoolmaster, giving him a whipping as an object lesson, but for the most part he's given to squeaky-clean moralism and Shakespearean statements to his love-at-first-sight girl friend. As a result, we're drawn more to the two villains, both of whom turn in rollicking performances. Jim Broadbent's role as sadistic schoolmaster gets him to ham things up, one eye closed as he had lost his vision early on both physically and morally, helping him to eat up the scenery whenever he appears. Best of all, Christopher Plummer, dignified as a robber baron must be, has the juicy job of turning from the moneyed head of his extended family and one who gives "family values" a bad name, to his comeuppance when everything caves in at once.

I'd like to think that Douglas McGrath's film will encourage his audience to go out and get the Penguin book, but then, we're a fast-paced, Cliff-Notes addicted society more likely to pick up the latest self-help book from Barnes and Noble than anything written before the year 2000. That being the case, you can't go wrong by taking in Dickens-light. "Nicholas Nickleby" gives us all the moral vision, the rich characters, the love of storytelling that Charles Dickens has willed to his family of millions.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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