In the center of all the Dickensian squalor and grotesquerie that can be compressed into two hours stands Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam), Dickens’s first, and most overtly, heroic protagonist, and the hero of his first and most overtly heroic and romantic work.
The picture of chivalry, courage, courtesy, and dedication to duty, outraged at injustice and ready to defend the helpless orphan Smike (Jamie Bell) and the honor of his sister Kate (Romola Garai), Nicholas is the archetypal underdog hero, "young, poor, brave, unimpeachable, and ultimately triumphant" in the words of G.K. Chesterton.
Writer-director Douglas McGrath, who previously adapted and directed the charming 1996 version of Emma, does a respectable job of retelling as much of Dickens’s tale as possible in the time alloted. The casting is generally very good, with Christopher Plummer as the heartless, well-to-do uncle Ralph Nickleby, Jim Broadbent as the squinting, leering Squeers of horrific Dotheboys Hall, and Juliet Stevenson as his equally terrible wife.
Nathan Lane and Alan Cumming provide some comic relief as Mr. Crummles and Mr. Folair of the tawdry performing troupe with which Nicholas briefly falls in. (One strange, jarring bit of incidental casting is that of Crummles’s unattractive wife as a man.) The cheerily cherubic Cheerybles (Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan) complete Dickens’s morality-tale portrait of human nature, with Nicholas’s heroism, in the words of one character, as "the definition of goodness."
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.