–130 mins – rated SIMMERING (Opening in cinemas nationwide on 20
Readers’ Digest Dickens
I was lucky enough to see the famous nine-hour Sydney Theatre Company
stage production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in
1983. It was based on the landmark Royal Shakespeare Company
production, and starred John Howard (the actor, not the PM) as Nicholas
Nickleby. I saw it on two consecutive nights. After the first night I
could hardly wait for the next one. It was simply magnificent and
utterly riveting theatre.
With this film, director Douglas McGrath has 2 hours and 10 minutes to
try to cover the same ground. McGrath has experience in adapting
classic novels for the cinema – his previous film was 1996’s Emma,
starring Gwyneth Paltrow. But this time the task is more difficult.
Actor Timothy Spall has described it as “like getting an ostrich into a
Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby is a long novel bulging with fascinating
characters and sub-plots. It’s no wonder that the RSC production was
over nine hours long. (It was filmed in 1982 for the BBC).
Nicholas Nickleby has been adapted for the screen several other times.
There were silent versions in 1903 and 1912. Ealing studios produced a
version in 1947, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti. That version, which
ran only 108 minutes, was criticised at the time for omitting too much
of the novel. Yet it positively teems with detail – far more than the
current movie version includes. There was also a mini-series in 1977
and a TV movie in 2001. None approaches the virtuosity of the RSC
McGrath has said he approached the adaptation by paring the story down
only to those parts that relate directly to the relationship between
Nicholas and his Uncle Ralph Nickleby (superbly underplayed by
Christopher Plummer). This tactic has its advantages: Dickens’ ideas
about the need to root out and confront evil, and the importance of the
support of family and friends emerge as strong themes in the film. But
there are also disadvantages: we lose much of the detail that is a
major strength of the novel. And by focusing more closely on the
character of Nicholas Nickleby, we see how bland a hero he actually is.
This isn’t helped by the casting of pretty-boy Charlie Hunnam as
Nicholas. This Nicholas looks like he’s come to London, not from
Devonshire, but straight from Malibu, or Bondi. A sleekly tanned blond
Nicholas in Dickensian England is most incongruous.
Better cast are some of the other characters: I’ve already mentioned
Christopher Plummer who gives us a cold-as-ice Ralph Nickleby. But in
his climactic final scene and moving last speech Plummer shows us the
spark of humanity in Ralph and we understand how he lost his way in
life. Tom Courtenay is superb as the dipsomaniac clerk Newman Noggs.
Nathan Lane is suitably florid as theatre actor/manager Vincent
Crummles. In a bit of marvellously off-the-wall casting, Barry
Humphries as Dame Edna Everage plays Mrs Crummles – and plays it
straight down the line, if you can believe it. But Jamie Bell (of Billy
Elliot fame) is a rather too robust Smike for my taste.
In the pivotal roles of schoolmaster Wackford Squeers and his wife are
Jim Broadbent and Julia Stephenson. Broadbent is quite a tasty villain,
but it is Stephenson who truly thrills. Her Mrs Squeers is like
Lady Macbeth to Mr Squeers’ Macbeth. And the hints she gives of the
sexual gratification they seem to derive from the cruelty they inflict
on the poor little boys of Dotheboys Hall are just chilling.
Most of Dickens’ work had a serious social purpose, and Nicholas
Nickleby was no exception. Before he wrote the novel, Dickens and his
illustrator, Hablot Brown, had travelled to Yorkshire to investigate
the conditions at several schools where children has died or gone blind
through neglect. One infamous schoolmaster, William Shaw, was the
inspiration for Wackford Squeers, and a gravestone inspired the
character of Smike. Dickens’ exposure of these schools helped bring
about laws to reform the private education industry. It is sobering to
reflect that over 150 years later we have still not managed to
eliminate child abuse.
McGrath has altered the beginning and the end of the novel by having
Vincent Crummles narrate his film, and it doesn’t quite ring true: I
could tell right away that these weren’t Dickens’ words. But on the
whole, despite the oversimplification of the story, and thanks to some
great casting and strong performances, this version of Nicholas
Nickleby just about passes muster.