A review of “Nicholas Nickleby” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: PG for mature themes

Run Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

 

 

Safe to say that Charles Dickens would be tickled pink at Doug McGrath’s (“Emma”) big screen treatment of Dickens’ dark family drama that runs the gamut of emotion from cruelly abusive to sparklingly entertaining.

Dreary Dickens-isms punctuate this adventurous tale of young Nicholas Nickleby (“Queer as Folk’s” Charlie Hunnam), whose sunshiny childhood comes to a bitter end when he is abruptly left, at 19, the penniless head of the household.  Desperate to care for his mother and his younger sister in the manner to which they are accustomed, Nicholas locates employment with the help of his Uncle Ralph (a gleefully evil Christopher Plummer). 

Nicholas’ life is unalterably changed by the scene at the Dotheboys Hall, where he serves as an instructor to a passel of filthy little street urchins. Forced to live in squalid conditions under the tutelage of a cruel headmaster and headmistress (Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson as the evil Wackford and Mrs. Squeers), Nicholas struggles to keep a tight hold on his dignity and his sanity.  The one bright spot is a burgeoning friendship with a sadly misshapen (due to incessant beatings) errand boy named Smike (Jamie Bell), whose loyalty to his new friend is as touching as it is steadfast.

Ultimately, Nicholas and Smike manage to escape the horrors of Dotheboys, and the two set off on foot to re-join the Nickleby family.  But Nicholas has more than a family reunion in mind.  He vows revenge on his uncle, no matter what the cost to himself.

Beautiful scripting and a hard edge of tension are the foundation of this delightful literary adaptation.  Revenge, romance, exploitation, and the unyielding search for happiness are molded into a perfect plum pudding of a film. Star-studded cast (including Nathan Lane, Timothy Spall, Alan Cumming, etc. ) offer up deliciously wry performances. Plummer, Broadbent and Bell, in particular, deserve all the kudos and awards they can garner. 

Dialogue is alternately wickedly funny and poignantly sad.  Not to mention cunningly vicious (“Your day is done - night is coming fast for you!”) and romantic as sin (“I looked at your face, and saw the universe and the order behind it”).  Sigh.

Here’s to a new year filled with many more such cinematic gems.