Nicholas Nickleby –130 mins – rated SIMMERING (Opening in cinemas nationwide on 20 November 2003)

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 thermos flask”.

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 production.

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.