Review by: Graeme Kay | Rating:
NICHOLAS Nickleby enjoys an idyllic childhood, growing up in
1850s rural Devon with his younger sister (Ramola Garai), his
mother (Stella Gonet) and his kindly, spendthrift father (Andrew
However, in his late 'teens, tragedy strikes Nicholas, when his
father dies and the family is left destitute. With nowhere left
to turn they travel to London, where they hope that Nicholas'
wealthy uncle will help them out.
Unfortunately, the mean-spirited Ralph Nickleby is not embued
with family spirit and the help he offers his nephew is not quite
what was anticipated.
Nicholas is packed off to Yorkshire to serve as a teacher at
the notorious Dotheboys Hall, run with sado-masochistic glee by
the abominable Mr and Mrs Squeers (brilliantly played by Jim Broadbent
and Juliet Stephenson).
However, the kindly Nicholas, taking a special interest in a
crippled, persecuted orphan, named Smike (Jamie Bell), quickly
becomes appalled at the terrible conditions suffered by the children,
and, eventually, after a run-in with Mr Squeers, he and Smike
flee the Hall and start on a journey through which Dickens explores
the usual themes of social inequality and injustice in the Victorian
Of course, this is not the first time this novel has been dramatised,
and many people will remember the rip-roaring nine-hour production
staged in the by the RSC in the 1980s.
Douglas McGrath, the writer and director of this film, certainly
does, and is on record as saying that seeing it was the 'most
thrilling theatrical experience I ever had'.
The problem he faced, he says, was how to reduce the book to
a length that would suit a film. His solution was to make the
story of Nicholas his main focal point.
Unfortunately, this turns out to be a big mistake because Charlie
Hunnam is seriously miscast as Nicholas; the biggest problem being
that he neither looks nor sounds like a 19th Century Devonshire
Rather, his appearance and his irritatingly weird accent, suggest
a 21st Century US surfer-dude caught up in a Bill and Ted type
These deficiencies, combined with Hunnam's distinct lack of charisma,
leave him unable to carry the film, and make it hard for the audience
to care one way or another what happens to Nicholas as he makes
the journey from boy to man.
On the upside, there are some strong dramatic performances here
from the likes of Timothy Spall (as the kindly Charles Cheeryble),
Nathan Lane (excellent as the roguish Vincent Crummles) and Tom
Courtney (Newman Noggs), but they are too few and far between
to make up for the film's other obvious flaws.
In McGrath's defence, he says that in casting Hunnam he was hoping
to appeal to a younger audience. But that being so, perhaps he
should have considered updating the whole story (a la Baz Luhrman's
Romeo & Juliet) because this patchy, sluggishly paced rendition,
distinctly lacking in thrills and spills, is unlikely to satisfy
either Dickens purists or those new to the author.