The main thing that this movie suffers from is that it has been condensed to an almost absurd degree. The copy that sits on my shelf clocks in at over 900 pages, written by Charles Dickens with great energy and humor. Director (and frequent Woody Allen collaborator) Douglas McGrath trims the story down to a commercial length, and revs up the pace to an astonishing degree. This film seems like it is in a hurry to get to the closing credits, which in one sense is great because it’s not very good.
The movie begins with Young Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) and his family enjoying a comfortable, idyllic life. The idyll comes to an end when Nicholas’s father dies, leaving the family bankrupt. Nicholas, his sister and mother journey to London to seek help from their Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer), but Ralph’s only goal is to separate the family and take advantage of them. Nicholas is sent to teach at a ramshackle school run by the merciless Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent). Eventually, Nicholas runs away with schoolmate Smike (Jamie Bell), and the two set off to bring the Nickleby family back together.
There are some good elements. Christopher Plummer is worth watching as the wicked uncle. Nathan Lane is interesting. Dame Edna as his wife is fun to watch, but by and large the film is beige. Just average. In the title role of Nicholas is Charlie Hunnam a British television actor who made his name on Queer As Folk, and unfortunately he’s not very interesting. As the central character you have to want to watch him. You have to care about his character. You have to want him to succeed. You have to want him to marry the right girl. You have to want all that for him, and you don’t.
The problem is that while you are traveling with him you meet all sorts of characters that are far more interesting than the central character. You want to say, ‘Nick, you go on. We’re going to stay here for a while.’
Historical drama doesn’t have to be this dull. Dickens is brimming with juicy characters and interesting plots, if only the filmmakers had trusted the source material, a book that has been delighting people since 1839.