Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam) and his family live a comfortable life, but when his father dies, they are plunged into destitution. The family unit travels to see Nicholas' uncle, the wicked Ralph (Christopher Plummer), and they are promptly separated, with Nicholas sent to teach in a vile, evil boarding school. It is there that Nicholas meets a young crippled boy named Smike (Jamie Bell), who is being treated atrociously by the owners of the school. Nicholas and Smike soon escape their dilapidated surroundings, and travel back to society, where Nicholas attempts to regain his family's position in the world.
In taking on the formidable task of adapting Charles Dickens' 800-page novel, certain concessions must be made. Characters must be cut out, motivations shortened and entire literary movements trashed. Writer/director Douglas McGrath ("Emma") evidently decided he was up for this challenge, but the end result of "Nicholas Nickleby" (IMDb listing) seems to have tired out before it hit the finish line. Giving himself a little more than two hours to work with, McGrath has the cards stacked against him right from the start, as there is just too a high mountain to climb in producing this tale for the screen. Other productions have allowed themselves the mini-series format for this saga, and the stage play has been known to run eight-plus hours. In truncating the story to fit the needs of the cinema, McGrath has no chance of victory. The Dickens tale has a deliberate pace to it that McGrath can't match, and by liberally cleaving events and characters, the film has an episodic, "Next week, on 'Nicholas Nickleby'" feeling to it. If you're unfamiliar with the story, the characters and their purpose in the bigger picture get jumbled, and their ultimate motivations are questionable. McGrath should've allowed himself more time, or moved on to another Dickens novel.
Still, the basic power of the emotional beats inherent in such an epic story remain. What McGrath can't convey in plot, he makes up for in casting to make these moments work. Charlie Hunnam, coming off his disastrous work in "Abandon," makes for an enchanting and charming Nicholas. He's backed by such acting luminaries as Jim Broadbent, Nathan Lane, Alan Cumming, Jamie Bell ("Billy Elliot" himself), Tom Courtenay, a wicked Christopher Plummer, Barry "Dame Edna" Humphries, Timothy Spall and a lovely Anne Hathaway as the object of Nicholas' affection. But the attention keeps going back to Hunnam and his fine work here. The ensemble cast keeps McGrath's direction from completely drowning the film by delivering such wonderful performances.
This new "Nicholas Nickleby" should infuriate Dickens purists even further, and rightfully so. It's not that this version is poor, but it just wasn't a good idea to begin with. This is a huge story not fit for such a short running time, and here is the cinematic example that should scare off all other attempts to do so.
Filmfodder Grade: C-