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Nicholas Nickleby (PG)

Review by: Graeme Kay | Rating: One

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 Havill).

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 era.

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 gentleman.

Rather, his appearance and his irritatingly weird accent, suggest a 21st Century US surfer-dude caught up in a Bill and Ted type time-warp.

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.

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