- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

Douglas McGrath made himself a benefactor of both literature and cinema by directing Gwyneth Paltrow and a savory cast in "Emma" in 1996. It was his first feature as a screenwriter-director and seemed to indicate an aptitude for prestige literary adaptation. Now that he has turned for a belated encore to a Charles Dickens novel, "Nicholas Nickleby," you're inclined to reinterpret his success with "Emma." Maybe it was the happiest of flukes.

A numbing disappointment, the McGrath condensation of "Nickleby" is weakened crucially by the casting of two pivotal roles the young English actors Charlie Hunnam as Nicholas and Jamie Bell as Smike.

Nicholas is a poor but resourceful young gentleman trying to make his way in the world. He supports a widowed mother and virtuous sister, Kate even though he's often away in Yorkshire and Portsmouth while they live in London, all too close to the whims of an unscrupulous, hardhearted uncle named Ralph.

Smike is a battered and illiterate youth whom Nicholas rescues from his first place of employment, a disgraceful school for abandoned boys in Yorkshire operated by a grotesque and fraudulent headmaster named Wackford Squeers.

In fact, Ralph Nickleby's first act of treachery to his estimable nephew is to broker the exile to Squeer's notorious academy, Dotheboys Hall, where ignorance and tyranny dominate the curriculum. Smike is the resident whipping boy, whose birth and childhood miseries remain indispensable to the deepest and darkest revelations of the plot.

Moviegoers may recognize Mr. Bell as the title character in "Billy Elliott" two years ago. I think it just as likely that they won't, while asking themselves what Mr. McGrath thought he saw in such a dull, mawkish acting instrument. It was easier for Mr. Hunnam to escape notice in the campus thriller "Abandon" a few months ago.

In both cases, the director has placed reckless trust in performers who prove conspicuously unable to sustain the character attributes needed to save the movie from lackluster peril pitiful, supplicating attributes where Smike is concerned and heroic, protective ones where Nicholas is concerned.

It's bewildering to discover that Mr. McGrath was inspired to cut "Nickleby" down to size and then some by attending and admiring the Royal Shakespeare Company's epic theatrical production of the novel 20 years ago.

A videotape version of the production remains in circulation, preserving the formidable nature of that entertainment. Inevitably, it also invites unflattering comparisons to the McGrath digest, particularly when one rediscovers the expert and astonishing performances of Roger Rees as Nicholas and David Threlfall as Smike.

The nine-hour running time of the play, typically performed in matinee and evening chunks, allowed director Trevor Nunn and his associates to revel in much of the teeming vitality of the Dickens original, which approaches 1,000 pages. His third novel, published in serial form starting in 1838, it contrives to interweave the comic abundance of his first, "The Pickwick Papers," with the crime-story sensationalism, heartbreak and topical polemics of his second, "Oliver Twist."

Mr. McGrath's priorities are lamentably wrongheaded. His adaptation whittles away at "Nickleby" as a prodigiously comic specimen of a social epic in order to isolate the Nicholas-Smike friendship as a self-sufficient tear-jerker. The result is deprivation on a vast and disillusioning scale.

The movie becomes petrified while doting on the sad devotion of Smike to his rescuer and Nicholas' compassion for this needy case. They linger so long in melancholy takes that you have too much time to ponder technical defects, particularly Mr. Hunnam's mushy diction. The most convincing struggle in the movie is his failure to get comfortable with Nicholas' dialogue.

The actors cast in essentially comic roles, notably Nathan Lane as the effusive, opportunistic theatrical manager-patriarch Vincent Crummles, who recruits Nicholas for his troupe, have very little time to make themselves sources of pleasure. Mr. McGrath seems to have imagined that entrusting some narration to Mr. Lane would enlarge his humorous presence and authority, but he overrates this amenity by a country mile or so.

Repeatedly, you're conscious of the letdowns: Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson don't have enough latitude as Squeers and his wife. The Crummles interlude is a throwaway. Timothy Spall seems wasted as one of the benign Cherryble brothers. Mr. Hunnam seems unworthy of Anne Hathaway, the discovery of "The Princess Diaries," cast here as Nicholas' eventual sweetheart, Madeline Bray.

Even the gag casting of Barry Humphries as Mrs. Crummles, doing a Victorian variation on his Dame Edna Everage impersonation, proves a lame jest, because his/her screen time is negligible.

Christopher Plummer's performance as Ralph is too striking to seem negligible, but it needs a soundly constructed and balanced framework to emerge as powerfully as it probably deserves. You're reminded of how little control actors have over the final effect of a movie portrayal, even if they have been doing everything right from scene to scene.

Mr. Plummer is very unlucky in his setting on this occasion. It's as if a gem were tossed negligently into a box of chipped marbles and unmatched nuts and bolts. It stands out, but the quality would be enhanced if the collector were less careless about the ensemble.


*1/2

TITLE: "Nicholas Nickleby"

RATING: PG (Sinister plot elements and illustrative details, including depictions of cruelty to children)

CREDITS: Directed by Douglas McGrath. Screenplay by Mr. McGrath, based on the novel by Charles Dickens.

RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes


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