Nicholas Nickleby (2002) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG for some adult themes and some violent action
Running Time: 132 min.

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent, Jamie Bell, Romola Garai, Anne Hathaway, Edward Fox
Director: Douglas McGrath
Screenplay: Douglas McGrath
Review published January 7, 2003

Nicholas Nickleby Charlie HunnamDickens purists may scoff at seeing his quite lengthy novel turned into a movie clocking in at just a little over two hours. A quick check online reveals that the unabridged paperback usually has about 800+ pages, so it would seem an arduous task to winnow down all of the heavy characterizations and side stories and make a satisfying tale.

I haven't read Nicholas Nickleby, so I cannot tell you how much of the book it doesn't cover, whether or not it does justice to the book, or in fact, anything of the book at all. However, I must always stress, even if I had it wouldn't matter, as I always strive to take each film on its own terms, regardless of how faithful it may be to its source material. Perhaps it might even help not to have read Dickens masterwork, as I actually found the film version to be thoroughly enjoyable, in fact one of the best films of the year.

Charlie Hunnam (Cold Mountain, Children of Men), a relative newcomer to the world of movies, is cast as the titular character. As a young boy, Nicholas Nickleby was the son of a banker, and he enjoyed a blissful family life until the day his father "speculated" on the wrong deal, and they ended up penniless, and not soon after, fatherless. Nicholas ventures forth with his mother and sister into the city to see if they can find help from their uncle, but his heart seems of stone, and other than offer them some ways to earn money that even beggars off of the street shun, he is of little help at all. Still, they need money, and soon Nicholas accepts a job at a boys school for orphans, but rather than help the children, the schoolmaster and wife are merciless in their treatment of them, taking their money and dishing out beatings for the most trivial of reasons. Things get so out of hand, that running away proves the only option, but with a vicious schoolmaster on their tails, as well as an opportunist uncle trying to shop around his niece for profit, situations seem dismal for the Nicklebys.

A tremendous effort by screenwriter/director Douglas McGrath (Emma, Infamous) in finely honing down the wordy book into a film of quality entertainment and enduring thematic scope. For all of the trimming, Nickleby rarely feels hurried for someone who doesn't know the novel, taking its time in developing the characters and never becoming confusing, even with a sizable cast.

In addition to McGrath, Nicholas Nickleby is aided immensely by some very impressive performances, with actors so tuned in to their characters, you'll find yourself cheering out loud for the good guy and hissing at the bad. Hunnam might be a controversial choice for Nicholas, but I think he did a terrific job making a somewhat pious young man seem genuine, without sugarcoating it to the point of being too goody-goody to believe. Terrific character actors fill up the remaining cast, including great performances by the always engaging Jim Broadbent (Gangs of New York), Christopher Plummer (Ararat), and Nathan Lane (Titan AE).

Even if it were deficient in these areas, Nicholas Nickleby would have almost have been worth watching for the lovely scenery and beautiful sounds. Dick Pope (Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, The Illusionist) does a masterful job with the cinematography, while the score by Rachel Portman (Cider House Rules, Chocolat) ranks among her finest work in her long and distinguished career. It's a great period piece recreation, with lavish sets and gorgeous costumes by Ruth Myers (who also worked with McGrath on his other two films, Emma and Company Man).

So, unless you are a scrooge about movies that don't fully capture the essence of reading Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby is about as satisfying an adaptation as you could ever expect and still be under 2.5 hours. A heartening tale of hope and the strength of human kindness, and one of the better non-animated family entertainments to come out in some time.  

Qwipster's rating:  

©2003 Vince Leo