Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It's Not Going To Start A Stampede Toward Dickens, But Nicholas Nickleby Is All Right.

The Good: Decent acting, Interesting engaging characters
The Bad: Very obvious Dickens story, Nothing incredible in the DVD bonus features
The Basics: A good movie set in Industrial England, even if it uses pretty much every Dickens conceit, Nicholas Nickleby is well acted and entertaining at its worst.

I have no problem in admitting when an actor or actress has gotten my attention and I have decided to focus on their works. It happens about once a year; I see a movie where a performance surprises me and I pick up a stack of DVDs that feature the performer in them. Right now, I'm actually bombarding my local library with interlibrary loan requests for two actresses: Ellen Page and Anne Hathaway. I vaguely remember when Anne Hathaway was the breakout performer on an insipid show on Fox (was it Get Real?), but I think at the time I saw one commercial that featured her and wrote her off as another Hollywood-beautiful teenager who was likely to burn out, blow up or otherwise disappoint. Well, I have been known to be wrong before.

Seeing Anne Hathaway in Get Smart (reviewed here!), I was astonished by her ability to act and she played off Steve Carell expertly. She compelled me to give her career and performances a second look (by actually giving her body of work a first look). I started that search with The Devil Wears Prada, which I in no way regret seeing, but did not thoroughly enjoy. So, when Nicholas Nickleby came in on DVD, I rushed out and gave it a spin. And Anne Hathaway is in it - in the last half or third - but largely, this is a Dickens movie and not an Anne Hathaway vehicle. That said, it is what it is and it is fine for that.

My usual disclaimer applies: this is a review of the 2002 film of Nicholas Nickleby, not the Charles Dickens novel upon which it is based. I have not read that particular Dickens novel and as a result, anything that explains deficiencies in the movie that might be explained in the book, I do not apply.

Nicholas Nickleby is born to Mr. and Mrs. Nickleby and he grows up under his father, who is part of the emerging lower middle class in 19th Century England. When Mr. Nickleby has enough money, he speculates - emulating his fabulously wealthy brother, Ralph - and the prospect is a complete bust. So, Mr. Nickleby dies, leaving his wife, Nicholas and his daughter Kate as paupers. Nicholas sets the women up with Ralph and sets out to earn his keep in the world.

While Nicholas journeys to a school with an abusive family, the Squeers, Kate is left in the company of Ralph, whose friends leer at her and attempt to rape her. Nicholas rebels against Wackford and Mrs. Squeers, freeing the much-abused Smike from their "care." He then heads out to join an acting troupe and finds himself in more trouble when Kate requests he come home to save her. His return has dramatic consequences for Smike, Ralph and himself, leading to the revelation of many family secrets that have long been buried.

Okay, Nicholas Nickleby is pretty much your standard Charles Dickens plot: there are poor people, there is an inheritance, there is a person who could die and who he might leave everything to is up in the air, there are orphans whose parents may yet be alive and there is a heroic young man who falls in a sort of bland, predictable version of love. I'm not saying that if you've seen one movie based on a Charles Dickens novel, you've seen them all, but just as 18th Century British literature involving female protagonists tends to follow a dreadfully predictable formula, so too are Dickens' stories often made up of similar elements to one another.

As such, Nicholas Nickleby tells a story that generally focuses on Nicholas, but has him wander from one metaphor to another to allow for observations on the 19th Century to be made through Dickens' satirical lens. As a result, characters like Wackford Squeers is not so much a character but rather an archetype of the abusive schoolmaster of the time; greedy and henpecked. In Nicholas Nickleby he is a literal cyclops and one imagines that his lost eye came from some form of abuse much like what he inflicts upon his young charges. Similarly, when Nicholas encounters the Crummles and their roving troupe of actors, Vincent Crummles (played wonderfully by Nathan Lane) is not so much a character with distinctive traits as a wandering commentary on the state of theater in Britain at the time.

In fact, one of the few characters who actually seems like a character - an irony given his rather standard traits almost universal to Dickens' stories - is Ralph Nickleby. Ralph is essentially a Scrooge (another Dickens character!) and in this incarnation of Nicholas Nickleby, he is played by Christopher Plummer. Plummer may almost seem like an obvious choice for such a role, but he fits this cast perfectly as he brings a gravitas and serious quality to the role that counterbalances Nathan Lane's just-on-the-right-side of over-the-top performance (despite the two not sharing any scenes). Plummer has the ability to emote with his eyes with the most subtle downturn of his head to indicate his character is deep in thought. Throughout Nicholas Nickleby, it is Plummer who engages the audience and shows the viewer what his character is going through, as opposed to telling.

Sadly, though, this is very much a Dickens story and as a result, the movie builds and builds toward a very simple and direct reveal, wherein all of the "clues" to the backstory around Nicholas, Smike, Kate and Ralph are told to the audience. I'm not so thrilled by long scenes of exposition, but it being Dickens, that's what you get. Douglas McGrath, who adapted the book for the screen and directed the film seems unwilling to go against that formula and we forgive him that because he makes the movie look as good as it does.

Indeed, for a movie about Industrial Era England, this film looks surprisingly good. The pacing is set fast enough so it never seems like it is plodding along and McGrath manages to provide the viewer with the vague sense that the movie is actually going somewhere. While it might not be anywhere particularly surprising, the film IS going somewhere and it is not a bad story.

And hey, it does have Anne Hathaway, who turns up as a love interest for Nicholas. She pops in and does her thing quite well, though the role is essentially a supporting part.

This leaves me with praises to heap upon Charlie Hunnam. Hunnam plays Nicholas and is thus given the bulk of the work to do in the movie. On the DVD bonus features, he appears an unshaved, Bohemian looking guy when in the film he could be the natural heir to the niche occupied by Brad Pitt. Seriously; seeing him in the bonus features it surprised and terrified me because he was virtually everything that Nicholas is not (down to mumbling his way through the interviews on the bonus features when his character is soft-spoken, but articulate). But this might well be the best possible argument for the quality of his acting. He is thoroughly convincing as Nicholas and we never once suspect that he might be something other than a quiet man who is keeping his inner violence at bay. He is truly impressive in the role.

On DVD, Nicholas Nickleby appears with an interview on the cast, talking about how it was to work with one another. As well, there is a commentary track by writer-director McGrath, the theatrical trailer and a featurette on adapting the book into a movie. They are pretty much the typical bonuses for this style of movie and they work fine for giving viewers who like the movie a little extra.

Nicholas Nickleby is not going to start a revolution in cinema, but it's an adequate and entertaining movie that tells an engaging enough story to watch, if not purchase for one's permanent collection.

For works featuring Anne Hathaway, please check out my reviews of:
Anne Hathaway For Wonder Woman!
One Day
Love And Other Drugs
Family Guy Presents: It's A Trap!
Alice In Wonderland
Valentine's Day
Twelfth Night Soundtrack
Bride Wars
Rachel Getting Married
The Devil Wears Prada
Brokeback Mountain
The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement
Ella Enchanted
The Princess Diaries


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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