Screenwriter/director Douglas McGrath has produced a respectful condensation of Charles Dickens’s rich and sprawling novel of the young sister and brother who find memorable friends and foes when they venture to London for the first time after the death of their father.
This is the story that the Royal Shakespeare Company turned into a stunning almost-word-for-word 9-hour version starring Roger Rees. There is no way that any two-hour version could compare with one of the most unforgettable theatrical experiences of the last century, and it does not try. McGrath has focused on the heart (in both senses of the word) of Dickens’ story, the struggle by Nicholas against his uncle’s attempts to corrupt or destroy him. Although he has had to jettison many colorful characters and huge sections of the story, his skillful paring preserves the essence of the novel’s tone and themes and the result is thoroughly satisfying on its own terms.
Nicholas (Charles Hunnam) and his sister Kate (Romola Garai) grow up in a small house in the country, the devoted children of devoted parents. But their father speculates unwisely in an attempt to follow the example of his successful brother. When he dies, the family must go to the brother for help. The brother is Ralph Nickleby, who lives in a huge house filled with a collection of stuffed and mounted animals that seem to be poised to pounce on anyone who is careless enough to look away.
Nicholas and Kate take the jobs Ralph procures for them. They are so kind themselves that they do not realize that he sees them the way he would see a shilling – only worth his time if he can use them to his advantage. He sends Nicholas off to become a teacher at a boys’ school in Yorkshire and he sends Kate off to work for a dressmaker.
The school is run by Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his wife (Juliette Stevenson). They starve and beat the boys and steal the money and gifts sent to them by their families. One particular boy, known only as Smike (Jamie Bell of “Billy Elliot”), is the most severely abused, because he has no family.
Nicholas does the best he can to teach and befriend the boys, but his gentle upbringing has not prepared him to take on such unabashed cruelty. When he spurns the advances of the Squeers’ daughter, her parents decide the best way to hurt Nicholas is to abuse Smike. Nicholas, unable to bear seeing Smike beaten again, thrashes Squeers and he and Smike escape.
On their way back to London, they meet up with literature’s most irresistible troupe of actors, the company established by the spectacularly theatrical Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane) and his wife (Barry Humphries of “Dame Edna Everage” fame). Their special attractions include their daughter — a perpetual juvenile of indeterminate age billed as “the Infant Phenomenon,” and a real working pump that he tries to work into every production just because it is such a novelty to see on stage. They welcome Nicholas and Smike warmly and invite them to join them in their production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Nicholas and Smike are very happy there until they get a letter from Kate. Ralph has allowed his unsavory business associates to treat her disrespectfully. Like Nicholas, she does not have enough experience of the world to abandon her natural gentility and the circumstances and conventions of her culture and era give a woman without the protection of a man few options in responding to abuse.
Nicholas returns to London with Smike and denounces his uncle, who swears he will get revenge. With the help of the kind and generous Cherryble brothers and a few melodramatic revelations, Nicholas and Kate manage to find true love and happiness.
Dickens books lend themselves beautifully to film. He created strong, very distinctive characters, gorgeous dialogue (the movie is worth seeing just for the way Lane delivers Crummles’ speeches), and wonderfully dramatic stories with all the audience-pleasers Vincent Crummles would love to put on for an audience – dastardly villains, true-hearted heroes, love, hate, revenge, comedy, tragedy — and a working pump. McGrath and his actors clearly view this as a labor of love, and every detail is beautifully realized, with one of the best ensemble performances of the year. The one exception is Hunnam as Nicholas. It is a challenge for any actor to play a good-guy hero whose job is to react to all of those vivid characters, but Hunnam never manages to show us anything of Nicholas’ growing depth and resolve.
Parents should know that the movie has child abuse, some tense and upsetting family scenes, and sad deaths. A character commits suicide and it is portrayed as a just response to a terrible revelation. There is a brief and somewhat graphic childbirth scene with a nude baby.
Families who see this movie should talk about how parents can both protect their children and prepare them for a world in which not everyone will be as kind to them as their families are.
Families who enjoy this movie should see McGrath’s similarly meticulous version of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. They should also see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 9-hour version, a magnificent achievement, and they might want to see some of the many other movie versions of Dickens’ books, including “A Christmas Carol,” “Great Expectations,” and “David Copperfield.”