When his father dies, Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam) is a 19 year old in early 19th century England left with no income and a sweet sister Kate (Romola Garai) & mother (Stella Gonet) to protect and provide for. His uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer) is the only option, but Ralph is a venal, selfish brute who send Nicholas to Dotheboys in Yorkshire, run by the cruel, one-eyed Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his wife (Juliet Stevenson). The abominable conditions trigger Nicholas’ moral outrage and after beating Squeers he runs off, taking his new and best friend, the abused young Smike (Jamie Bell). Kate has had equally bad luck at the hands of Ralph and his awful group of dirty old men, but Nicholas rises to the occasion and defends his family, managing to also snare the heart of Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway), moments before her father’s debts ensnare her in a horrid marriage.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
There he is, this impossibly good natured, kind hearted and sensitive young man with a backbone and the readiness to whip beastly people into shape, physically if necessary as well as morally. Remember his name? Nicholas Nickleby, a figure from Dickens, created at a time when heroes of this kind were sorely needed in a social swamp which allowed men like Squeers and Ralph and women like Mrs Squeers to go about their nasty business.
Of course, this no longer is the case, so it’s an irrelevant subject. Right? No, I didn’t think so either. I woke up as soon as the film started, realising why it was so acutely relevant. Not only does Nicholas forge himself and his family a new life after the death of his father, he does so with the vigour of a man whose morality remains intact. He is the model of the good man who won’t avert his eyes from the evil some men (and women) do. He doesn’t let the ill fortune of his fate become an excuse for doing harm to others. More of him are badly needed all around the world today. Then there’s the venality of his uncle Ralph; as Christopher Plummer portrays him in all his nasty glory, he is almost recognisable in our daily news reports. Squeers these days has moved up a notch to be a sadistic little shit working in several outer suburbs of the world’s cities. But luckily, the good folk of this tale are also with us today.
Still, part of me finds the film anachronistic – but maybe that’s because the language is sufficiently stilted to be ‘period’ to go with the costumes and the scenery – and another part of me enjoys the simple pleasure of moral decency espoused in comparatively subtle terms. (As distinct from the barrel of a gun, say.) The collection of famed older thesps is a delight equal to the work of the younger cast, and it’s especially great to see Jamie Bell hobbling into a terrific characterisation as the crippled Smike, a big change for the boy actor who soared into prominence as a ballet dancer. There is a symbolic bit of casting for you.
Review by Louise Keller:
Filled with exquisite craftsmanship bringing the Charles Dickens’ classic to life, Nicholas Nickleby is an intricate and absorbing saga about the triumph of goodness over evil. In the context of the importance of family, this is the story of an honourable man who shoulders responsibility and upholds everything that is good and right. Of course, the words that Dickens’ penned in the 19th century may have been in the context of a time when carriages were drawn along the cobbled streets, bonnets were the height of fashion, and etiquette and social graces were ultra conservative. But although the language we speak may be somewhat different and women’s place in society may have altered dramatically, Dickens’ story is absolutely relevant today.
The very essence of man’s struggle has changed little over the years, and writer/director Douglas McGrath has created a splendid reality for the story. Sophisticated production design, costumes and a pleasing lyrical score envelop us as we journey with the Nickleby family through their trials and tribulations. And with its superlative cast of seasoned thesps, plus a handful of up and coming stars, we are indeed surrounded by richness of talent as well as that of a literary nature. Charlie Hunnam is wonderfully charismatic in the title role (think a young, blonde idealistic Brad Pitt) and our hearts are with the young Nickleby as he develops from young man floundering from the recent loss of his father, to a self-reliant, confident and good human being. ‘Weakness is tiring, but strength is exhausting,’ is one of the classic gems.
After all, the pursuit of happiness is no easy task, and we eagerly watch as the dashing young Nickleby strengthens by the day, while his nemesis uncle (magnificently played by Christopher Plummer who exudes evil with every breath) becomes more and more evil by the minute. It’s a joy to dip in and meet all these brilliant characters – from Nathan Lane’s joyous Mr Crummles, Barry Humphries as his Edna-like wife, Edward Fox’s lecherous old fogey, Jim Broadbent’s hideously cruel one-eyed teacher and Juliet Stevenson as his pathetic excuse of a wife. Our hearts go out to Jamie Bell’s tragic crippled Smike: his relationship with the young Nickleby develops into the most moving of the film. We warm to Tom Courtnay’s double-crossing right hand man and Alan Cummings’ hilarious effeminate actor, and I like Romola Garai (I Capture the Castle) who is perfectly cast as Nicholas’ sister. Nicholas says: ‘We are born in strange times,’ while Smike adds the postscript: ‘but wondrous times.’ Nicholas Nickleby is a wondrous film, filled with all the minutiae of emotions that are familiar to us all. It’s a real treat for anyone who is interested in the detail. Yes, the devil may well be in the detail, but never fear, where goodness prevails, the devil doesn’t get a look in.
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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY (M)
CAST: Charlie Hunnam, Romola Garai, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Bell, Tom Courtenay, Anne Hathaway, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Nathan Lane, Barry Humphries, Alan Cumming, Timothy Spall, Edward Fox,
PRODUCER: Simon Channing-Williams, John Hart, Jeff Sharp
DIRECTOR: Douglas McGrath
SCRIPT: Douglas McGrath (novel by Charles Dickens)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Dick Pope
EDITOR: Lesley Walker
MUSIC: Rachel Portman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Eve Stewart
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 20, 2003
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: MGM
VIDEO RELEASE: June 9, 2004