Having filmed Jane Austen’s 1815 novel “Emma” as a giddily charming light comedy, perfectly suited to the highbrow end of the American moviegoing public, in 1996, writer-director Douglas McGrath now takes a similar approach to “Nicholas Nickleby,” Charles Dickens’ epic saga of family contention dating from a quarter-century later. One mightn’t think that what worked for Austen would be suitable to Dickens too, but in the event McGrath pulls it off. Purists who feel that only a dramatization like that done by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 1980s, which left out as little as possible and was performed in two parts lasting more than eight hours in toto (and was later filmed for broadcast), can do the book justice will doubtlessly grumble over the degree of compression and omission needed to squeeze things into a compass of just over two hours, but for most viewers this will prove a mostly delectable treat, a film of wit and style.
It is, of course, a much more pruned and streamlined “Nickleby” than David Edgar’s RSC adaptation, or even than the four-hour miniseries that was telecast in this country on the Bravo channel as recently as last January. And one could argue that it might have been more honorable to tackle the story in two parts, as was done by Christine Edzard in her two-film version of “Little Dorrit” in 1988, which had a combined running-time of six hours. But McGrath has opted to remold Dickens’ tale into a compact form suitable to the attention-spans of today’s BBC-loving cinemagoers, and he’s been quite skillful about it. His “Nicholas” hangs together on its own terms, and is at least the equal of the best-known earlier theatrical version, that made in 1947 by Alberto Cavalcani.
McGrath hones in on the duel between Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) and his malevolent uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer) that arises after the death of the young man’s father. Dispatching the background material economically through the use of an amusingly arch narrator, he brings Nicholas to London together with his mother (Stella Gonet) and sister Kate (Romola Garai) and swiftly sends the lad off to the hellish Dotheboys Academy in Yorkshire, where he suffers under the tutelage of the monstrous Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his harridan wife (Juliet Stevenson) while befriending the brutalized Smike (Jamie Bell). Nicholas rebels against the Squeers’ cruelty and leaves with Smike in tow, and after a brief stint on the stage under impresario Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane) and his wife (Barry Humphries) the duo make their way to London, where Nicholas, aided by Ralph’s grumpy, disloyal clerk Noggs (Tom Courtenay), defeats his uncle on all fronts. He defends the honor of his sister against the villainous advances of Ralph’s friend and investor Mulberry Hawk (Edward Fox) while defeating his uncle’s efforts to keep him from Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway), a girl whom he’s come to love from afar but whose father is in Ralph’s debt. Even more importantly, he counters his uncle’s effort to get at him by using Squeers to harm Smike, and, with Noggs’ help, ultimately reveals a horrible fact about Ralph’s past that destroys the older man.
As can be seen, McGrath’s script, while eliminating a good many of Dickens’ incidental characters and characteristic narrative digressions, does keep a good deal of his intricate plotting, even if some surviving figures–Mrs. Nickleby and Kate, the Crummles, even Madeline–and whittled down to the status of virtual bystanders. The emphasis is definitely on Nicholas, Ralph, Smike, Noggs and (to a lesser extent) Squeers, and the film is happy in their casting. As another of the golden-haired protagonists apparently favored by McGrath, Hunnam doesn’t bring the same degree of charm to his part that Gwyneth Paltrow did to “Emma,” but the fault is as much Dickens’ as his: Nicholas, after all, is pretty much a stick of a fellow on the page, and so he is on screen as well, and Hunnam makes the saintly fellow about as ingratiating as anyone could be expected to. Plummer gives a restrained performance as the glowering Ralph, and manages to capture the character’s darkness very well. Even more impressive are Bell, Courtenay and Broadbent. Bell, limping rather than dancing (as he did in “Billy Elliot”) makes a touching Smike, and Courtenay a hilarious fallen gentleman; Broadbent, meanwhile, is true to the first syllable of his name with a wonderfully colorful turn as the slimy Squeers (and he’s well matched by Stevenson). Among the supporting cast, Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan catch the oddball quality of the Cheeryble brothers, who become Nicholas’ helpful employers, and Fox, as usual, positively oozes aristocratic condescension as the devilish Hawk. (All of the them have the positively Hogarthian dimensions one wants in Dickens.) In fact, the only performers who fail to meet the high standard are Lane and Humphries; their turn as the Crummles is a miscalculation, taking the picture into the realm of vaudeville or the British music hall, which doesn’t jibe with McGrath’s customary tone. Lane’s extravagant gestures and “master thespian” voice are simply too Broadway brassy to fit in comfortably with the rest of the proceedings, and drag artist Humphries is irritatingly out of place as Mrs. Crummles. Alan Cumming, who worked so nicely in “Emma,” also sticks out a bit too much as a member of the Crummles troupe who’s perpetually interrupted when he tries to do his Highlands dance. It’s an added (and too-easy) gag that smacks of burlesque.
Visually the picture is quite beautiful, with Eve Stewart’s production design and Ruth Myers’ costumes lushly caught by Dick Pope’s elegant cinematography. Rachel Portman contributes a model background score, evocative yet unobtrusive.
In sum, McGrath’s version of “Nicholas Nickleby” may be Dickens Lite, but taken on its own slick, genteel terms it’s a surprisingly winning confection. And it certainly has been lovingly made.