In the Dickens canon, Nicholas Nickleby is a piffle among stronger works. It has all the requisite Dickensian elements: the cruel gray brow of industry and circumstance meant to bring high men low, the happy absurdity of luck and chance meant to bring low men high. There may very well be urgency and darkness to Nicholas’ character in the novel, but on the screen he’s a seemingly indomitable fellow who can barely summon a suitable furor to defend the honor of his sister. If that doesn’t get his gumption up, will anything? As far as Nicholas Nickleby goes, nope.
After the untimely death of his father, Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) and his mother and sister find themselves at the mercy of his rich, distemperate uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer). Rather than help the educated, genteel Nicholas find some sort of gainful employment in London, he packs the boy off to be a boarding-school assistant in Yorkshire. The school turns out to be a glorified house of torture, but it does little to dampen the spirits of Nicholas, who befriends the school cripple, Smike (Jamie Bell). The two eventually escape the clutches of schoolmaster Squeers (Jim Broadbent), join a theater troupe run by Nathan Lane and Dame Edna, and make their way back to London and the family Nickleby.
Once reunited with his mother and sister, Nicholas finds good work with a pair of jolly businessmen brothers, tends to the needs of poor Smike (who is this story’s typical Victorian secret revealed in the end) and defends the honor of all women within a hundred-mile radius, which in this case means his sister, Kate (Romola Garai), and his love at first sight, Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway). All ends happy and just. Ho-hum.
There isn’t any fault to find with the ensemble assembled by writer-director Douglas McGrath (who also did 1996’s Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow). Plummer does his disgruntled best; Broadbent hams it up as Squeers; and Bell, last seen in the title role of Billy Elliot, seems older and wiser than both of them. McGrath chooses Hunnam to carry his movie, a choice that works because the young actor seems utterly incapable of disingenuousness. His gorgeous looks and even voice provide Nicholas Nickleby with a smooth backbone and strong conscience. The fact that he never gets excited about anything isn’t his blunder; responsibility lies with McGrath, who has made a film devoid of any sort of fire.
It’s a broad, entertaining nothing of a movie, which was probably McGrath’s intent. There’s no sense in wishing for anything more.
Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.