Nicholas Nickleby

2002, PG, 132 min. Directed by Douglas Mcgrath. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Christopher Plummer, Tom Courtenay, Jamie Bell, Nathan Lane, Barry Humphries, Alan Cumming, Anne Hathaway, Edward Fox, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Timothy Spall, Romola Garai, Hugh Mitchell.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 10, 2003

Charles Dickens' 1939 novel is here adapted into a charming though abbreviated screen tale. Ably rendered by writer-director Douglas McGrath (who did the same for Jane Austen in Emma), the filmmaker has managed to retain the essence of a picaresque story and has stocked his show with a teeming cast of characters played by a host of wonderful actors. And the show is truly the thing here. If the movie ever slowed down to consider its many narrative coincidences and archetypal conveniences, it might find itself stalled by its conventionality. Generally considered to be one of Dickens' lesser novels, Nicholas Nickleby has been adapted to film at least twice before, and the Royal Shakespeare Company also staged a much-celebrated nine-and-a-half hour stage production in the early Eighties. McGrath's production runs a little more than two hours, and feels just about right at that length, even though numerous storylines and subplots have been truncated or removed. Also contributing to the movie's dramatic flow are the understated music score by Rachel Portman and the classic look of Dick Pope's cinematography. Yet what makes Nicholas Nickleby sing are the enthusiastic performances of its supporting players. It is through them that we can glimpse the depths of true Dickensian horrors and the unique delights of friendship, family, and fun. Indeed, the performances are so rich that the movie withstands the comparative lightweightedness of young TV fox Charlie Hunnam in the title role. He evokes sympathy as the boy-to-man left head of an impoverished household following the early death of his father -- but not much else. However, he is bolstered by the work of Plummer as his rich, harsh, and despicable big-city uncle; Courtenay as the uncle's slyly contravening manservant; Nathan Lane as the bigger-than-life impresario of a peripatetic acting company and Barry Humphries (in the guise of Dame Edna) as the impresario's wife; Jamie Bell as the sickly beaten-down child Nicholas befriends at the monstrous school run by the horrific Squeers -- a sadistic married couple played by Broadbent and Stevenson whose abuse of the children has just a coy hint of sexual perversity; and Alan Cumming as a jack-of-all-trades actor who just wants to perform his highland fling. Although Nicholas Nickleby occasionally evidences a simplicity that resembles a Junior Scholastic production, the movie's enthusiasm is contagious. Take a sick day -- no notes from your guardian needed.

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Nicholas Nickleby, Douglas Mcgrath, Charlie Hunnam, Christopher Plummer, Tom Courtenay, Jamie Bell, Nathan Lane, Barry Humphries, Alan Cumming, Anne Hathaway, Edward Fox, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Timothy Spall, Romola Garai, Hugh Mitchell

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