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Film review: Nicholas Nickleby

Published: Friday, Jan. 24 2003 7:17 a.m. MST

Wow, so who knew Charles Dickens could be so light-hearted?

That shouldn't be taken as an indication that the latest cinematic version of "Nicholas Nickleby" — the first in more than 50 years — is a start-to-finish laugh riot. Otherwise, it couldn't really bear the title without incurring the wrath of the literary community.

In comparison to the often dour and dense source material (which is more than 700 pages), however, the film feels positively frothy.

What's more, it's a well-acted delight that not only manages to capture the atmosphere of the better Merchant-Ivory productions, but one that may make you want to go back to the book to see what you missed.

The film also marks the arrival of British actor Charlie Hunnam, who stars as the title character, a 19-year-old who suddenly finds himself in the position of head of a British household when his father passes away. So he goes to London for support from his well-to-do Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer).

His uncle is appalled that a relative is looking for a handout, however. So he sends Nicholas off to Dotheboys Hill, a school for boys, where the teenager witnesses mistreatment of the students by one-eyed headmaster Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his even more horrible wife (Juliet Stevenson).

Nicholas also befriends Smike (Jamie Bell, from "Billy Elliot"), the school's abused caretaker and learns of his uncle's misdeeds. Then there's Ralph's clients, who have been leering lustily after Nicholas' innocent sister (Romola Garai). And Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway), who will never meet up with Nicholas if his uncle has anything to say about it.

If not for character names and familiar situations, it might seem hard to believe that this is Dickens, as writer/director Douglas McGrath has put his own unique stamp on the material, just as he did in 1996 with "Emma."

The cast is terrific. This is the best Hunnam's ever been, and Bell continues to impress. And what can be said of Plummer's delicious turn as the villain, except that it's Oscar-nomination worthy?

The supporting cast is also notable, including Broadbent and Stevenson, as well as Nathan Lane, Barry "Dame Edna" Humphries and Alan Cumming, all winningly goofy as members of a theatrical troupe.

"Nicholas Nickleby" is rated PG for violence (punishment, including whipping and beating), some mildly racy humor and references, scattered use of mild profanity (religiously based), glimpses of nude artwork and brief gore (during a birth scene). Running time: 138 minutes.


E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com