I've seen Nicholas Nickleby long, in the emotionally engulfing, nin-hour-plus Royal Shakespeare Company production (both onstage and on television) from 1981, and I've seen Nicholas Nickleby short, in the brisk, tingling, 108-minute British movie from 1947 directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and now available on videotape. I have boundless affection for both of them. The new, in-between Nicholas Nickleby clocks in at 135 minutes and leaves me flat.
Directed and adapted from Charles Dickens' 1838 novel by Douglas McGrath (who guided Gwyneth Paltrow through Emma), it's got a mouth-watering supporting cast, led by Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson and Tom Courtenay.
But the star, Charlie Hunnam, despite his chiseled physique, makes one doughy Nicholas; Anne Hathaway as his true love, Madeline, lacks sparkle; and McGrath is a dull, sometimes incompetent, always over-explicit director. He turns this teeming, cathartic tale of a young man turning the tables on his persecutors, saving his mother from destitution and his sister from degradation into a generally bland and cozy fable of a wounded family that gets healed and transformed into an expansive alternative family filled with friends. It's like a Sundance Film Festival dysfunctional-clan farce - made wholesome enough for Saturday children's matinees.
For those who need a quick trot through the plot, Nicholas' wealthy Uncle Ralph (Plummer), a London financial speculator, disguises exploitation as opportunity: He promises to care for Nicholas' widowed mother (Stella Gonet) and sister Kate (Romolo Garai) while he installs Nicholas as a teacher in a Yorkshire boarding school. The school, Dotheboys Hall, is a horror. The illiterate, one-eyed headmaster, Wackford Squeers (Broadbent), and his wife (Stevenson) dose the inmates with brimstone and treacle to dull their appetites and keep them passive. Nicholas tries to teach real subjects, like French, until the vicious handling of the misshapen, sickly Smike (Jaime Bell) drives him to the breaking point.
Meanwhile, Uncle Ralph's "care" for Nicholas' mother and sister includes using the comely Kate as a lure for dirty-old-men clients like Sir Mulberry Hawk (Edward Fox). Nicholas' quest to save Smike and Kate grows to involve such outsize characters as the theatrical troupe of the Crummles and the cherubic brother businessmen the Cheerybles. (The performances of Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan as these twins are undiluted joys - spry, hearty embodiments of eccentric virtue triumphant.)
Director McGrath has written, in his introduction to the new Penguin edition of the book, that he was "much inspired" by the RSC production. More recently, in The New York Times, he disparaged the Cavalcanti film for resembling "a trip through Nicholas Nickleby Land on a very fast monorail" and for not allowing a viewer to "feel much for anyone."
Unfortunately, no RSC inspiration comes through in McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby. (Perhaps his expanded role for the Crummles' troupe is meant as an homage.) And if he didn't feel connected to anyone in the Cavalcanti picture, it must be because of his own milder temperament. Whenever I watch the boldly photographed, black-and-white 1948 movie, I feel an intense rooting interest for Derek Bond's stalwart Nicholas and Aubrey Wood's other-worldly Smike as they run the gauntlet of villains like Cedric Hardwicke's Ralph and Alfred Drayton's Squeers. And this rooting interest keeps recharging in the course of that film's rapid running time, especially when Nicholas whips Squeers for abusing Smike.
In the new movie, McGrath makes the baroque gesture of binding poor Smike with ropes like the sacrificial Cuban nightclub virgin in The Godfather Part II. But then he stages Nicholas' vengeance over Squeers so haphazardly that he defuses the young man's triumph - a pity, because Broadbent and Stevenson conjure a magnificent comic horror, at once sensual and punitive, as the headmaster and his wife.
It's no coincidence that McGrath also botches Nicholas' confrontation with the predatory Sir Mulberry Hawk. McGrath gets so caught up in manufacturing an alternate-family fable that he blunts Dickens' keen rendering of a mistreated man of virtue repeatedly pushed to violence. (How gloriously politically incorrect it is to watch the 1948 version and revel in righteous thrashings!)
As Vincent Crummles and Mrs. Crummles, McGrath casts Nathan Lane, whose biggest screen role was the drag queen in The Birdcage, and drag artist Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna. A funny notion - but these performers' particular skills don't mesh with the period or the rest of the characters. (The old movie's Mr. Crummles, Stanley Holloway, had the zesty savor of a well-aged ham and registered as the font of his cast-mates' vivid styles.)
When McGrath hits on an idea, he doesn't let you forget it. To convey Uncle Ralph's rapacious nature, the director decorates his house with mounted birds and bird parts, then cuts to them emphatically. McGrath and that great actor Tom Courtenay envision Ralph's unhappy servant, Newman Noggs, as an increasingly rebellious domestic animal. Courtenay does it brilliantly, but McGrath's clunky close-ups make it look as if Courtenay over-does it.
Plummer, though, is unconquerable as Ralph. He offers a towering interpretation of emotion enslaved to calculation. He makes greed and hate as rich, unfathomable and charismatic as romantic passion. His performance is a miracle: In a movie as flat as a tablecloth, he suggests dimensions as wide, deep and curved as Cinerama.
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Nathan Lane and Tom Courtenay
Directed by Douglas McGrath
Released by MGM/United Artists
Time 135 minutes
Sun Score: ** 1/2