Generally, of course, we prefer our heroes to be more complicated than that. We prefer them to give into temptation, to occasionally be self-serving, to fall in love with the wrong girl. This gives them more depth, realism, and makes them more like us. But sometimes we need movies like “Nicholas Nickleby,” in which the good guys are just so damn noble. There’s hardly a good deed in “Nicholas Nickleby” that is not in some way harmful to the gentle souls who perform it, but they hold their heads up high and don’t look back. And, by golly, that’s the way it should be.
Nicholas’s story takes him through all the locations favored (or loathed) by his creator Charles Dickens. We visit an inhuman orphanage run by cruel and self-righteous tyrants; we wander grey London streets where industry breathes, blasts, and stinks; we meet miserly industrialists with nothing but ice water and brandy in their veins; we calm ourselves in the pastoral countryside; and we follow our penniless but well-meaning heroes from danger to danger. Improbable (yet thematically-consistent) secrets and soap operas creep out of the past and, by the end, someone gets married. Someone always gets married.
19-year-old Nicholas’ (the very handsome Charlie Hunnam) quest is to hold his family together after the death of his big-hearted but financially lackluster father. In this he is beset by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, particularly his greedy uncle Ralph (acting legend Christopher Plummer), who represents the most merciless aspects of business and social Darwinism. Nicholas is joined by a crippled orphan named Smike, whom he rescues from the orphanage (this is the 1880s; no one was handicapped, they were crippled). Played by Jamie Bell of “Billy Elliot,” their friendship is the crux of the film, and their willingness to stick together through thick and thin is one of its many strengths. If you want to know what they look like, go to the dictionary and look up “sweet-faced boys.”
Because this is Dickens, we get all sorts of great supporting characters, both weird and small. Hunnam’s performance is an exceptional one, in part because he is so convincingly good-hearted and boyishly vulnerable, but also because he knows when to get out of the way of the supporting cast, which is frequent. The movie is the work of screenwriter-director Douglas McGrath, who has in the past teamed up with Woody Allen, and whose “Emma” is perhaps the most accessible of all the teacup-and-drawing room movies. Part of his wizardry is to allow Nicholas’s trip to include plenty of tangents in order to properly exploit all these Dickensian weirdos. At two hours and ten minutes, “Nicholas Nickleby” is a touch longer than the average movie, and worth it. One of the advantages of movies of this length, with this many locations, and a lot occurring at each of them, is that we actually feel like we’ve been on a journey. Say what you will about “Gone With the Wind,” but you’re physically worn by the end.
McGrath allows his two leads—the boys—to become supporting characters in many of these episodes. A new star is allowed to shine every twenty minutes and dominate the movie, while the boys look on in wonder. The malnourished orphanage stars a one-eyed Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson as diabolical, almost kinky wardens. A lengthy side-story in which Nicholas and Smike join an acting troupe is handed over to Nathan Lane, Alan Cumming, and Barry Humphries, also known as Dame Edna Everage, playing one role in drag and one straight.
In London, the movie stars Plummer as Ralph and Tom Courtenay as his sardonic, perhaps half-crazed manservant. His relationship with Plummer is alternately described by McGrath as that of an old married couple or Laurel and Hardy in a rest home. Why they never part company, despite their mutual loathing, is never explained, and perhaps it’s better that way. The great Edward Fox also makes an appearance as a wizened, dirty old robber baron out to seduce some young thing. The young people in London (Rosola Garai as Nicholas’ sister and Nicholas Rowe as a would-be suitor) pop up to become strong and noble in the faced of aged cynicism. Once Nicholas returns to London, the wonderful Timothy Spall plays his good-hearted and ample-bellied benefactor, joined by Gerard Horan as his twin brother, at a time when twin brothers could dress the same at every occasion. And apple-pie beauty Anne Hathaway joins the cast to win Nicholas’ heart.
In the DVD commentary McGrath’s praises the cast in this way: “If a bomb fell on our set one day it would have wiped out a lot of joy givers.” 13 or 14 actors get pre-title billing and that still doesn’t cover all the interesting parts. Fans of British acting need no introductions for many of these actors, while other audiences will still find them smilingly familiar. There isn’t enough space to name everywhere you’ve seen them before, so here’s a partial list of their combined credits: “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Bend It Like Beckham,” the Anthony Hopkins/Julie Taymor “Titus,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “The Birdcage,” “I Capture the Castle,” “Young Sherlock Holmes,” “Gandhi,” “Iris,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Richard III,” “Time Bandits,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “All or Nothing,” “Chicken Run,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet,” “Vanilla Sky,” “The Lion King,” “The Dresser,” “Dr. Zhivago,” and, of course, “The Sound of Music.” I lost track of how many actors from Mike Leigh’s “Topsy-Turvy” appear in “Nicholas Nickleby,” which also serves as a reunion for many of “Topsy-Turvy’s” art directors, costumers, and production designers.
Everyone in Dickens is something of a caricature, but he was such a merciful guy that even the bad guys are given a chance to seem human. I read “Oliver Twist” recently, and its villains do absolutely nothing to earn our sympathy, yet so much time is devoted to how sad their demises are. That book also ends by saying that the only prerequisites to God’s love and mercy are to be “weak and erring.” McGrath has kept that sense of sympathy in “Nicholas Nickleby” and made an enormously human, loving film. Even Plummer’s wicked Uncle Ralph, who is the Monty Burns of the Industrial Revolution, is given moments of empathy and sadness.
In the same way that Dickens caricatured names and appearances to match someone’s soul, so houses, color schemes, and costumes have been made to match them as well. The result is a first-rate, beautiful production. The décor in Plummer’s house is all about unhatched eggs, skeletons, withered trees; everything is dead, stunted, and precisely beautiful. Costumes, buildings, and settings are uniformly grey when things are looking down for Nicholas and Smike, yet McGrath quietly brings in color as things begin to look up for them. We know they’re back on track when they meet an acting troupe with a pink horse.
In its numerous incarnations, “Nicholas Nickleby” has often been a TV miniseries, and has even been an 8-hour play performed by England’s Royal Shakespeare Company. McGrath has, obviously, had to excise much, yet the story feels complete, hermetic, and comprehensible. We never feel like we’re eavesdropping on two people discussing a book we’ve never read. This is in no small part thanks to the delightful score by Rachel Portman, which serves as a kind of dramatic shorthand, and has been going through my head for days.
I glance over my review of “Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary” and I see the words “I’m kind of bored with the mainstream language of film.” How wrong I was. “Nicholas Nickleby” is a conventional film, yes, complete with melodramatic lows and winsome highs, but it worked on me exactly as it intended to. I cheered for the characters when they did good and feared for them when things were bad, I liked who I was supposed to like, loathed who I was supposed to loathe, and ended the movie with a bittersweet lump in my throat. Let the movie’s detractors call it melodramatic, sentimental, sugary, maybe even manipulative. They’re probably right. But the movie has such an open-faced spirit of goodness. It is not at all ironic, detached, or mocking about any of this, but honors what is honorable and pities what is selfish. I thought I was too sophisticated for all this and thank God I was wrong.
Finished November 8th, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Friday & Saturday Night
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