To call Dickens’ novels episodic is to beg the point; most of them were, after all, written as serials for daily newspapers, as, indeed, was Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens’ genius was in the weaving of intriguing stories and the depiction of a large assortment of individualized characters. The characters are drawn in broad strokes of black and white (all virtue, all evil), something less than the depiction of real-life complexities and ambiguities in shades of gray. But these are, nonetheless, incisively etched personalities that capture the imagination and have pleased generations of readers; many have become essential elements of Western literary mythology.
Nicklwby has survived somewhat in the shade of the enormously popularnovels–Great Expectiations, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist–but there has been no better time than now for a revival of interest, as reflected in Douglas McGrath’s new film version. The villain is Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer), an unprincipled and avaricious financier who smoothe-talks his clients into making substantial investments with him; he’s as fresh as today’s headlines. Ralph Nickleby is not beyond pimping his innocent niece, Kate (Romola Garai), to curry favor with one of his slimier clients, Sir Mulberry Hawk (Edward Fox).
Ralph’s brother is bankrupt by investment speculations that failed, as a result of which "four stockbrokers took villas in Italy and 400 ordinary people were ruined." He took his life, leaving his widow, son Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam), and daughter Kate without means. They come to London seeking assistance from uncle Ralph, whose solution is to apprentice Kate to a milliner and to send Nicholas off to Dotheboys Hall, a squalid orphange for boys run by slimy Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his cruel and heartless wife (Juliet Stevenson). This is familiar Dickens territory; exposing conditions at these schools was genuine 19th century muckraking and was effective in leading to reforms. (Dickens’ father served in debtor’s prison and he himself was sent to work in a factory at age 12; his life experience informs the sense of fairness and unfairness, of wrongs to be set right, that suffuses his melodramas.)
At Dotheboys Hall, Nicholas befriends Smike (Jamie Bell); they escape together and join a traveling theater, headed by Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane) and his wife (Barry Humphries in high Dame Edna drag). This episode provides some delightful comic relief after the bleak goings on at the Hall. Ultimately, Nicholas and Smike return to London, where Nicholas finds employment with the kind and helpful Cheeryble brothers, a sort of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum pair ofGood Samaritans. Nicholas also rescues Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway) from one of hisuncle’s schemes and quickly falls in love with her. Dickens’ idealized romance is as bright as his villains are dark. Dickens also offers a definition of extended family, an idea that seems ahead of its time: "those who share blood, but also those for whom they would spill it."
McGrath, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, delivers the narrative in traditional style, with clarity and in the best of the Masterpiece Theatre "look"–production values are high. Especially effective is the grand, if ominous, house full of stuffed birds, elephant tusks, and animal skeletons which is Ralph Nickelby’s residence.
McGrath elicits first rate performances from all his leads and the many minor characters as well. (The casting is so deep that Tom Courtenay and Alan Cumming in supporting roles almost have been skipped over here.) Especially notable is Jamie Bell’s leap from the ebullient ballet dancer Billy Elliot to Smike, the lame victim of Dotheboys Hall.