Film Review: Nicholas Nickleby (2002)

“You must bear up against sorrow my dear”

Douglas McGrath’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby manages the not-unimpressive feat of condensing Dickens’ weighty novel into a two hour film, and whilst much must have been jettisoned (I’ve never read the book so I couldn’t tell you what) it still hangs together as a cohesive story with much to recommend it. McGrath also directs and remains very much faithful to the spirit of Dickens with a straightforward aesthetic that takes a few artistic liberties but whose heart is very much in the right place.

After the death of Nickleby senior, Nickleby junior is thrust into the role of head of the family but with the dastardly deeds of their unscrupulous Uncle Ralph, Nicholas has to work extremely hard and keep his wits about him in order to protect his friends and family from the misfortune around them. Those misfortunes are many and varied but entertainingly portrayed here as there’s a good deal of humour and pathos mixed in with the grimness.

Charlie Hunnam is perhaps a little too blond and clean to convince as a Dickensian hero (and his voice here never lets me forget Nathan) but he plays the part of Nicholas very well and has a great connection with the actors around him who form his social group. Whether it is Romola Garai’s much-abused sister Kate, Stella Gonet’s under-used mother or Jamie Bell’s heartbreaking but perfect Smike whose quiet dedication is probably the most moving aspect to the film.

The luxury casting extends right the way throughout the production: the travelling troupe with whom Nicholas connects briefly is run by Nathan Lane and Barry Humphries with a lovely chemistry together, Alan Cumming and Daisy Haggard are amongst the players there; Kevin McKidd and Helen Coker are a kindly couple who help out, and William Ash and Sophie Thompson also pop up amongst many other familiar faces. But it is the baddies who make the most impact: Christopher Plummer’s Uncle Ralph is excellent malevolent but Juliet Stevenson and Jim Broadbent as the vicious Squeers who run the schoolhouse are both terrifying and compelling.

It is probably heresy to say this, but I have to say this feels like a great introduction to Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and though I shall probably investigate whether there’s a TV version which appeals to me (though I don’t want one that is too long…!) and indeed add the book to a pile of things I will read one day, I’d say this is well worth a watch.


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