When his father makes a mistake that results in the loss of his fortune, and then dies soon after, young and naive Nicholas Nickleby and his sweet sister Kate are thrust into the cold and cruel world where they must learn to work for a living. Their good and honest personalities clash with the rest of society and causes much trouble for them, and we follow them through their ups and downs as they determinedly forge a path through the worst humanity has to offer in 1830's London.
This 2001 TV film clocks in at 3 hours, and by my reckoning could have easily been twice as long, because as good as this lesser-known adaptation of one of Dickens's lesser-known novels is, it only seems like a highlight reel of the 770-page book. They did the best they could with the time they had though; the content was packed in at an almost dizzying pace, but it was there intact. Most of what was left out wasn't necessary to include -- Dickens seemed more invested in page numbers than concise, rabbit-trail-less storytelling. Some of my personal favorite parts were left out, but the important plot lines were all present, and a good amount of the not-so-important, but entertaining smaller bits besides.
|Our dashing hero.|
The only character I liked, but didn't wish more screen time or development for was Smike, Nicholas's friend and faithful companion. He's played by Lee Ingleby, and is translated to the screen and portrayed flawlessly. Okay, I did wish one thing more for him, but it was at the end where everything was going at break-neck speed, so I understand. Ingleby was sweet and sad and wonderfully pitiable and everything he should have been.
|Their friendship and dynamic together was great.|
|Imagining them as their characters in the book was almost too easy. They were perfect for the roles.|
There's no shortage of villains to antagonize our hero and his family, but the best (and therefore the worst) of them is also his family -- the uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Ralph is a remarkable, amazingly complex antagonist I thought, and Charles Dance embodies him and his coldness with chilling believability, and underlying human realism. It is much more difficult to understand his inner-workings without Dickens's helpful guidance, but already knowing it, I found I could see it come out in the subtleties of the performance.
|The story is about Ralph Nickleby almost as much it is about his nephew; he is no one-dimensional villain.|
Other villains' existence was more focused on causing trouble for Nicholas than their thoughts and motivations behind it, so they were all done well; doing their duty and then fading out. Most notably is the Squeers family, who were all -- father mother daughter and son -- detestable through and through. And so disgusting that I wished they wouldn't be shown eating so very much. I have to admit I enjoyed Fanny's attempts at attracting Nicholas though, and it was one of few things that didn't feel hurried. Also worth a mention are Sir Mulberry Hawk (Dominic West) who was perfectly terrible, and his brace of followers, which includes the most familiar face this film can boast; before his rise to fame and mischief-making, Tom Hiddleston! He had a grand total of four words to say, but the camera did like him plenty.
|Sir Mulberry and his secondary crony, Old Fashioned Blonde Loki.|
The Cheeryble Brothers were the exact opposite of the villains; their sole existence was to make the Nickleby's lives better without examination of "why's," but I must say I wished to see more of their antics, and I definitely missed the inclusion of the honorary third brother Tim Linkinwater, who was undoubtedly excluded from this version for not having anything really important to do.
Then -- ah! -- there are the romantic interests! The definition-of-charming period drama veteran JJ Feild is Kate's, and of course he does a wonderful job being sweet and romantic like always. It goes without saying that they didn't get nearly as much time to develop their relationship as I would have liked. Neither did Nicholas and his girl, played by Katherine Holme. She looked the part perfectly, but had a nasally voice, and was barely given a half a chance to develop a character. A scene was added to give them some extra time on screen together, and a cute as it was, it felt out of place by not contributing at all to the plot.
|Yay, Dickensian romance!|
At the surface, this story doesn't have much a plot to speak of; it literally just follows the life and episodic adventures of its dashing young hero. Yet I would have sat through ten hours of this movie if it meant only a handful more of those insignificant adventures were included. Nevertheless, this film makes a valiant effort. It sets a good, dark tone, and keeps the focus and heart in the right place; it cast the characters flawlessly -- to actors who, in their turn gave wonderful performances -- and, with an understanding of what was most important to include, the story was trimmed down to three hours in the best way I could imagine possible.
The short run-time is the biggest flaw, and a significant one, causing repercussions throughout the plot and characters and restricting them from their fullest potential. But when their fullest potential is the great amount of time, attention and understanding Dickens devoted to them, the lesser level they reached in a three-hour low-budget film adaptation is not only acceptable, but quite impressive in itself. It doesn't lack in compelling characters, humorous moments, heartfelt moments or classic old-fashioned entertainment, and stays true to the feel and themes Dickens gave it. If it weren't for the attention and love put into this adaptation, I would have wished I hadn't wasted three hours on it, but instead, my one wish is that it could have been even longer; if only so I could spend a few more precious moments in the world of Nicholas Nickleby.