In 1996, Douglas McGrath adapted and directed a film version of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” giving it sumptuous new life and helping introduce a whole new generation to Ms. Austen’s work.
He has now done the same with Charles Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby,” giving it a similarly whimsical treatment as he winnows the massive text down to a manageable 133 minutes of British congeniality.
“Nicholas Nickleby” is not as widely read as, say, “Great Expectations,” which has nearly the same plot and many of the same character types. So we will acquaint the reader with the gist of the story as it is presented in McGrath’s very lovely movie.
It is a very merry, very British story, with the usual vivid assortment of Dickensian villains, cads, benefactors and child abusers. Good-natured Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) is 18 when his father dies, leaving him to see that his mother (Stella Gonet) and sister Kate (Romola Garai) are cared for. They head to London, in the hopes that wealthy Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer) will assist them. This he does, though his having ulterior motives should not surprise you.
Nicholas obtains a job assisting at a school for wayward boys, under the watchful eye (that’s singular) of the filthy Wackford (Jim Broadbent). Among Wackford’s possessions is young Smike (Jamie Bell), a semi-lame boy with no parents who does all the manual labor around the school but is not permitted to learn anything.
Nicholas and Smike eventually leave Wackford’s compound and encounter a large number of interesting folks on their way to, and within, London. Charlie Hunnam is not anything special as Nicholas, and neither is Anne Hathaway as his bland love interest, but the thing with Dickens is that it’s the oddballs who swirl around the protagonist who matter most, and these are portrayed with great humor and flair by an absolutely stellar ensemble cast. There are Nathan Lane, Barry “Dame Edna” Humphries and Alan Cumming as members of a traveling acting troupe; Tom Courtenay as Uncle Ralph’s nervous butler; Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan as a Tweedledee/Tweedledum pair of generous brothers; and on and on.
That’s not to mention the extraordinary performance by Christopher Plummer, who manages to breathe full-blown life into Uncle Ralph, a character who could easily be nothing more than a sneering villain. And Jamie Bell, who was dazzling in “Billy Elliot,” is once again skilled beyond his years as the endlessly sympathetic Smike. Either of them alone would be fantastic; here they are surrounded by character actors who are just as enjoyable to watch as they are, in a movie that very nearly lives up to all of its great expectations.
A- (2 hrs., 13 min.; )