[Screen It]

(2002) (Charlie Hunnam, Jamie Bell) (PG)

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Drama: After the death of his father, a young man sets out to avenge the wrongs and dishonor that his rich, but evil uncle brings onto their family.
It's 19th century England and the Nickleby family has suffered a great loss in the death of patriarch Nicholas Sr. Accordingly, 19-year-old Nicholas Jr. (CHARLIE HUNNAM) believes it's up to him to care for his sister Kate (ROMOLA GARAI), and mother (STELLA GONET). Yet, he doesn't have the means to do that, so he packs up the family and they head to London where they hope that their uncle Ralph Nickleby (CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER), a successful investor, might be able to help them.

Ralph initially seems willing to do so, but his motives are soon questionable. He gives Kate a job serving as his hostess, but allows and seemingly even encourages his older guests, such as Sir Mulberry Hawk (EDWARD FOX), to come on to her in inappropriate ways. He also sends Nicholas off to the remote Dotheboys Hall where he's to be employed as the assistant to headmaster Wackford Squeers (JIM BROADBENT) and his wife (JULIET STEVENSON).

They're a nasty duo who belittle and beat the boys as well as their lone handicapped servant, Smike (JAMIE BELL). Nicholas, who befriends the poor boy, can only tolerate their behavior for a short while and soon flees with Smike. That, along with Nicholas's rejection of the romantic fantasies of Squeers' daughter, Fanny (HEATHER GOLDENHERSH), soon has the family writing to complain of Nicholas' actions that they, of course, mostly fabricate.

While on the road, Nicholas and Spike eventually run into Vincent Crummles (NATHAN LANE), his wife (BARRY HUMPHRIES), and their band of theatrical performers including Mr. Folair (ALAN CUMMING). It's not long before the two travelers are performing alongside them in Liverpool, but once Nicholas receives word about his sister, they're back to London to defend her honor and take care of Ralph.

To do so, he needs the help of the evil uncle's feisty servant, Newman Noggs (TOM COURTENAY), as well as that of a wealthy businessman, Charles Cheeryble (TIMOTHY SPALL), who, with his brother, has employed the young man. While setting his romantic sights on a young artist, Madeleine Bray (ANNE HATHAWAY), Nicholas sets out to avenge the dishonor that Ralph has brought their family, all while the ruthless uncle attempts to ruin Nicholas' life.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That familiar saying is obviously the beginning of Charles Dickensí "A Tale of Two Cities." It could also be the refrain regarding differing views of movie adaptations of well-known novels. While many movies are based on literary works that few people beyond the author and his or her family and friends have ever read, others are based on popular or classic novels.

In that regard, oneís reaction depends on how true or not such an adaptation is to the source material. Since the two mediums are so different, itís difficult to make a film thatís one-hundred percent faithful to the novel and/or that will please fans of it. On the other hand, those who are unfamiliar with the original work often times donít care and only hope it stands on its own.

Such differing reactions might be the case with writer/director Douglas McGrathís adaptation of Charles Dickensí 1839 classic, "Nicholas Nickleby." Unlike the authorís other works such as "A Christmas Carol" and "Oliver Twist" that have made it to the silver screen various times, the last time this story did so was in a 1947 version.

Perhaps its massive length - weighing in at some 800 plus pages - has something to do with that. After all, before the advent of the TV mini-series, it was more than a bit difficult to stay true to such lengthy material.

Rather than go that route - and following in the footsteps of the previous adaptation - McGrath (the awful "Company Man" and the delightful "Emma") has opted to trim a little - okay, a lot - of the fat. Although I never waded through the novel, he also presumably hacked off other "body parts" as well, including apparently expendable characters, story threads and the like.

While that may be sacrilegious to literary purists, and probably wonít please die-hard fans of the work, the surgically altered patient thankfully not only survives, but also thrives. Yes, the 132-minute film is actually quite enjoyable and entertaining as presented for both non-stringent fans and first-timers to the story.

Being a typical Dickens tale, itís also dark and not always pleasant, but thatís what makes it so good. Dickens always had a knack for terrific storytelling and balancing humor and pathos, and thatís certainly the case here. Other than being a tad episodic at times and somewhat glossing over some of the minor characters, the film isnít likely to show its surgical scars to those unfamiliar with the source material.

With bookend style voice-over narration - that nicely sets the mood that the film is going to follow and which is delivered by Nathan Lane ("Loveís Labourís Lost," the "Stuart Little" films) who also appears in the film - the picture follows the journey of a young, 19th century man in true Dickens fashion.

Accordingly, the good times come with the bad and McGrath does a terrific job balancing the two, while the script also contains some brilliants pieces of dialogue and social commentary. The filmmaker takes all of that and infuses the overall proceedings with such an uplifting and infectious spirit that viewers wonít likely be able to contain their enjoyment of whatís offered (unless theyíre a Scrooge at heart).

Surprisingly, the storyís title character is one of its weaker elements. Thatís not to say that the portrayal by Charlie Hunnam ("Abandon," TVís "Undeclared") is bad or disappointing. In fact, the Val Kilmerish good lucks and appropriate earnestness that the actor delivers work quite well for the role. Itís just that the character is perhaps too goody-goody, when most of the rest of the characters have varying degrees of mystery and even some dark edges about them.

Thatís particularly true for the filmís villains who are obviously present to provide conflict and complications while testing the merit and mettle of the hero and his companions. The setup is for the mean and nasty types to receive their comeuppance, and this story offers three such characters who are quite memorable in their nasty and occasionally humorous behavior and personas.

Christopher Plummer ("A Beautiful Mind," "The Insider") could very well earn some supporting actor nominations for his portrayal of the rich but dastardly uncle. Recipient of many of the filmís best lines, the character is a terrific screen villain and obviously stems from Dickensí pen. The brilliant Jim Broadbent ("Gangs of New York," "Iris") and Juliet Stevenson ("Emma," "Truly Madly Deeply") are no slouches either when it comes to playing their villainous characters.

Supporting performances from the likes of Anne Hathaway ("The Princess Diaries," "The Other Side of Heaven"), Romola Garai (making her feature film debut), Timothy Spall ("All or Nothing," "Rock Star") and Alan Cumming ("The Anniversary Party," "Spy Kids") are all top-notch, but itís Tom Courtenay ("Last Orders," "Whatever Happened to Harold Smith?") and Jamie Bell ("Billy Elliot," "Deathwatch") who deliver the best ones.

The former plays a feisty and funny servant who isnít remotely faithful to his employer, while the latter is absolutely terrific playing yet another pure Dickens character, Smike, the handicapped and abused boy. The scenes between him and Nicholas are great and provide some of the filmís more emotional but also heartwarming moments.

All in all and from start to finish, this is a delightful film in most every way imaginable and possible. With solid performances, terrific writing and just the right combination of humor, darkness and uplifting material, this is one of the more entertaining films from 2002. "Nicholas Nickleby" rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed December 10, 2002 / Posted January 3, 2003

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