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Nick the Nice

You know, as I go about my daily business, people often come up to me and say, 'Awix, what do you think of Dickens?' To which I invariably reply, 'I don't know, I've never been to one1.' But ha ha ha joking apart, my ignorance is not entirely feigned, as the only movies based on Charles Dickens' work that I've encountered are Oliver! and The Muppet Christmas Carol, neither of which, I suspect, are fully satisfying to the purist.

Well, actually, that has just changed, with the release of Douglas McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby, an all-star précis of the novel of the same name. Charlie Hunnam stars in the title role as an honourable and decent young man whose family falls upon hard times after his father dies. Forced to fall back on the charity of their wicked uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer), Nicholas is packed off to a ghastly boarding school in Yorkshire run by the grotesque Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) while his demure sister (costume-drama specialist Romola Garai) has to contend with the lascivious advances of superannuated lecher Sir Mulberry Hawk (Edward Fox in self-parodic mode). This being a Dickens story, the tale which follows is lengthy and episodic, involving thwarted romance, social injustice, unexpected paternity and many top hats...

Any doubts that this is, at heart, a movie from the English Heritage school of film-making were fully dispelled by the special offer available at the cinema - see Nicholas Nickleby and get discounted membership of the National Trust! And so it proves, as all the old costume drama staples get wheeled on, with a vague sense of self-important smugness creeping into the production: look at how classy the production values are, and marvel at this wonderful cast, seems to be the subtext.

The cast is indeed very impressive: as well as the artistes mentioned above you've got Tom Courtenay, Juliet Stevenson, Timothy Spall, Jamie Bell, Kevin McKidd, Nathan Lane, and many more where they came from. But to be honest the actual performances are really quite
variable. Hunnam, Bell, and the other cast members don't really make much of an impression - mainly because the script insists they all be blandly decent throughout. And some of the others are, well, just rather hammy. This suits some parts of the story rather better than others. The lighter, warmer sections of the film are as funny and enjoyable as the director clearly hopes they will be, and are not even too badly unbalanced by some rather eccentric creative decisions, such as the casting of Dame Edna Everage as Mrs Crummles, or the appearance of the ever-camp Alan Cumming, who's perpetually on the verge of doing the Highland Fling (no, this is not a double entendre).

But those parts of the film which are essentially social commentary don't lend themselves to this style of acting. The Squeers, in particular, should be hateful monsters - but mainly due to the richly grotesque panto villain performances of Broadbent and Stevenson, they actually come across as quite funny in an unpleasant sort of way. This seriously undermines the impact of this element of the movie.

However, some of the performances are unequivocally praiseworthy. Tom Courtenay is hugely likeable and assured as Newman Noggs (come on, it's Dickens, they've all got names like that), and - this was a huge surprise to me - stealing the show as wicked Uncle Ralph is Christopher Plummer. I've always just thought of him as the bloke out of The Sound of Music (and okay, maybe Star Trek VI), but he comes in here and does the business - he's effortlessly commanding and believable, without resorting to overacting like so many of his co-stars.

I don't know the original novel at all, so I can't really judge how this stands up as an adaptation of it. It's clear in a number of places that some quite rigorous trimming has taken place, the climax in particular seems a little abrupt and slightly confused. But, on the other hand, the story feels quite satisfying and there's rarely any doubt as to what's going on. There are some quite good gags of various kinds and if certain bits don't appear to serve the plot at all, this is usually made up for in terms of sheer entertainment value.

Ultimately Nicholas Nickleby falls into the category of 'all right, if you like that sort of thing'. It's possible that this story is unadaptable - into a film of conventional length, anyway - and given the relative weakness of the central role it's clear that it is fundamentally flawed as a serious drama. But as a demonstration of various different acting styles by some big name performers, as a light, broad comedy, and as a kind of undemanding Dickens-lite, it's quite acceptable. A bit of a curate's egg, but an entirely inoffensive one.

Coming Soon: Hulk!

The Awix


10.07.03 Front Page

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1This joke will soon be 140 years old. Many happy returns!

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