'Nickleby' is quintessential Dickens in its mixture of sentiment and satire; its finely drawn characters and caricatures; its clear cut delineation of good and evil, hero and villain; its melodramatic and coincidence-ridden plotting; and its championing of the downtrodden underclass of 19th Century England. Like many of Dickens' protagonists, Nicholas is a young man who is forced by circumstances (in this case the death of his father) to leave the comfort and security of his home and family and to venture forth to make his way in the world. On his journey he meets many vivid and colorful characters, all of whom reveal to him both the goodness and the cruelty inherent in human nature. These picaresque tales almost always end up with the hero a bit wiser and less naïve for his experiences - but more committed than ever to righting wrongs and seeking justice for those less able to do so on their own. And 'Nicholas Nickleby' is no exception.
In his approach to the material, McGrath has employed an amazing economy that allows him to effectively compress a 500-page novel into a 2 hour and 12 minute film. With so much storyline to work with, McGrath wastes no time in setting the scene and defining the characters, then moving merrily along from one dramatic incident and encounter to the next. Yet, the film never feels rushed or telescoped as movies derived from lengthy novels so often do. Each character, whether major or minor, is given the opportunity to make his or her mark on the scene. It's true that, in Dickens' world, the villains and eccentrics are generally far more intriguing and memorable than the comparatively pallid heroes and heroines, but McGrath has succeeded in making even those latter characters moving and interesting. Above all, the film is blessed with a cast made up of first-rate performers who bring each of the author's creations to vivid life. Charlie Hunnam, despite his having to embody a character who is a fairly one-dimensional, conventional 'pretty boy,' manages to make Nicholas a bit more active and a bit less passive than he might have become in lesser hands. Nathan Lane and Barry Humphries make a delightful couple as Mr. and Mrs. Crummles, the leaders of the fifth-rate theatrical troupe that, for a short while, becomes a family for young Nicholas. Jim Broadbent enacts a fine comic villain as Mr. Squeers, the brutal but henpecked schoolmaster with whom Nicholas quite literally comes to blows. The film's finest performance comes from the ubiquitous Christopher Plummer as Nicholas' evil Uncle Ralph. Plummer understands that the key to conveying villainy effectively is by underplaying the role. By doing so, he helps to ground the film with a much-needed center of gravity.
Special recognition should go to the handsome production and costume design, to the fine cinematography and to the lovely score by Rachel Portman. In fact, everyone involved in the making of 'Nicholas Nickelby' should take a bow for converting such a fun, entertaining novel into such a fun, entertaining film. Dickens, I believe, would feel honored and proud.