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Nicholas Nickleby - An interview with Douglas McGrath



Interview by: Graeme Kay

WRITER/director Douglas McGrath, best known for his Academy Award nominated adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, says that his love for the Dickens classic, Nicholas Nickleby, dates back to the time when he witnessed the nine-hour stage production mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s.

"I never got it out of my head," he says. "It was absolutely amazing."

From the moment he witnessed the RSC's version, McGrath was thinking of a way to condense the story to a length that would be suitable for a film.

The solution he came up with was to narrow the focus to the story of Nicholas himself, rather than stick to the scheme of the novel, which follows the adventures of the whole Nickleby clan.

IL. So, how easy was it to reduce the book to a filmable length?
McG. Funnily enough, once I made the decision to follow Nicholas' story line, it quickly became obvious that the plot would be Nicholas' discovering Smike, saving him, defending his sister's honour and finding himself in the process.
But I was always aware that the film could not replace the book, it could only serve as a supplement that would hopefully encourage people to explore the novel for themselves.

Such is closeness of the relationship between Nicholas and Smike in the film, and perhaps because of the background of leading man Charlie Hunnam, who came to prominence as the star of C4's gay drama, Queer As Folk, it has prompted some people to ask whether the two were enjoying a homosexual romance.

McGrath is aware of this but dismisses the idea.

"I can see where that thought might come from, but the relationship really is more like father and son.

"Nicholas knows what it's like to lose a father, and he is aware that the tragedy forced him to depend on himself.

"And, in caring for Smike, he becomes like a parent himself. So, really, his affection for Smike comes from the kind of unquestioning, unconditional love that a father has for a child."

IL: What was it about Charlie Hunnam that prompted you cast him in the leading role?
McG:
I had seen what he had done in Queer As Folk, and when he came to see me in New York, I was immediately struck by his look.
He was very close in age to Nicholas and I thought that was very important to the poignancy of his situation.
He also conveyed an innocence and a sincerity that was important for the part. Also, by casting him, I felt I could make the film appeal to a younger generation.

IL: And what about Jamie Bell. Why was he right for the part?
McG:
Well, I'd seen him in Billy Elliott, so I knew that he could probably handle the extreme physical demands that playing a cripple entailed.
But what I really liked about him, and this was a feeling endorsed by Christopher Plummer [who plays Ralph Nickleby], was that he was prepared to play the character tough. He never asked the audience for pity or sympathy, he skipped all that and went straight for the emotional heart of the character.

IL: Finally, in the role of Mr Squeers, Jim Broadbent is required to interact with the schoolboys in an extremely physical way. Were there any injuries?
McG:
Well, here's a little secret, although it looks very violent, a lot of the power of those scenes in Dotheboys Hall came from the amazing sound effects. Yes, it was obvious that one of the kids was getting a pretty realistic thrashing, but don't worry, because he was very, very well padded.

 

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