Nicholas Nickleby (PG)

What the Dickens?
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The Independent Culture

Adapting Dickens is always going to be a stretch, but it is particularly tough on Douglas McGrath that his new Nicholas Nickleby appears within recent memory of a classic version of the novel. The RSC's nine-hour epic, which wowed audiences here and in the States in the early Eighties, ranks alongside David Lean's stupendous 1946 film of Great Expectations as not just the best of all Dickens adaptations but one of the best adaptations of any book, anywhere. That's quite an act to follow, and McGrath's film, despite some incidental felicities and decent performances, falls some way short.

For a start, there's the problem of scale. The compression of a 900-page novel into a two-hour movie is a job to test the most able of adapters, and too often McGrath's truncation of the text makes the film feel at once lightweight and heavy-handed; just as nobody would wish to read the novel at one sitting, there is something basically wrong-headed about selling it as a two-hour viewing experience. "Dickensian" encompasses within it a sense of sprawl, of intricacy and suspense - we want to savour the anticipation of the next instalment, not be hustled towards the finishing line.

What we have here is a kind of highlights package of Nicholas Nickleby, beginning with a little sermon on financial "speculation" and its fatal undoing of Nickleby Senior, a kindly, feckless man who's soon in his grave. His widow and two children, Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) and Kate (Romola Garai), are obliged to beg the late man's older brother, Ralph, to save them from destitution, which he does in a markedly ungenerous spirit. He dispatches Nicholas to Yorkshire to take a post as assistant schoolmaster at Dotheboys Hall, first trial of the young man's mettle - and of the director's imaginative vision of this most famous of Dickensian monstrosities.

McGrath rises to the challenge, aided by Dick Pope's eerie chiaroscuro photography (Nicholas's first candlelit glimpse of the starving boys asleep in mangers is a Gothic miniature) and Jim Broadbent's thrillingly grotesque headmaster, Wackford Squeers. I had forgotten since last reading the novel that Squeers, aside from being grasping and brutal, is also revoltingly uxorious towards Mrs Squeers (Juliet Stevenson). He fondly recounts her treating a boy's abscess: "To see how she operated upon him with a pen-knife! Oh Lor! What a member of society that woman is!"

Indeed, these early scenes would be impressive were it not for the dawning awareness that Hunnam in the title role simply isn't up to snuff. His face, surmounted by a shock of blond hair, belongs in a boy band. But what truly drags him down is his voice, an inexpressive instrument that strains to conceal a northern burr - or is it a recently acquired American twang? Surely a voice coach could have got on his case and secured a diction that sounds, if not from the Nicklebys' Devonshire, then at least from a recognisable part of England. At his side, Jamie Bell's Smike seems comparatively nuanced and assured, though his consumptive decline comes nowhere close to the pathos of Roger Rees and David Threlfall in the RSC version.

The tendency towards famous-name casting does not entirely work to the film's advantage. In the theatricals episode, when Nicholas and Smike fall in with a troupe of travelling players, the presence of Nathan Lane as Crummles, Edna Everage as his wife and Alan Cumming as a frustrated Highlander collectively turn the camp dial so high we seem to be watching panto. The 19th-century Wilton Music hall in Wapping, where these scenes were shot, makes up for the shortfall in authenticity. And talking of remarkable edifices, the best performances in the film come from two old English stagers: Christopher Plummer could have reduced Ralph Nickleby to a snarling Victorian blackguard, but instead suggests a troubled heart behind his flinty front. And at least three cheers for Tom Courtenay as his bibulous secretary Newman Noggs, whose snippy commentary from the sidelines is a thing of joy. Together, they sound like a couple trapped in a bad marriage: "Stop parroting me." "I wish I were a parrot. I'd fly away." "If you were a parrot I'd wring your neck." And so acidulously on.

The Noggs-Ralph Nickleby relationship, no less than that between the Squeers, serves to remind us that Dickens is far more compelling on humankind's crooked timber than on the idealised pairings of his romantic fancy. It is no fault of McGrath's that Dickens couldn't write a properly adult (ie. sexual) romance, but it means the film succumbs in its latter stages to the most appalling drippiness, with Nicholas finding a love match in the put-upon Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway). Again, this contrasts with the darker Victorian drama of young women being forced into convenient marriages to old men, in this case Kate Nickleby being pimped by her uncle to Sir Mulberry Hawk (Edward Fox, his face a pickled walnut). Garai's trembling distress is capitally done, and makes her much abbreviated role a cause for regret.

This Nicholas Nickleby is no disgrace, but it does highlight the ungainly fit between a feature film and a long, episodic novel. It's like a snake trying to swallow an antelope: you know it can be done, but the effort required feels outlandish.