Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

I seem to have started a little tradition for myself of reading a Dickens novel over the Christmas season every year. First it was Little Dorrit, after having watched the fantastic, wonderfully long miniseries adaptation by BBC; this past year, it was Nicholas Nickleby, and this time, I did the reading before the watching, falling in love with the book, and then this adaptation.

The Nickleby's.

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.

James D'Arcy, I knew from very early in reading the book, was ideally cast as the young hero Nicholas, and I was not wrong. Nicholas is a potentially tedious character to portray; pride and naivety are easily bothersome flaws for a hero to have, and his positive qualities -- mainly his passionate good heart -- are difficult to bring out on screen without helpfully explaining text, but besides looking the part exactly, D'Arcy does the character justice admirably. My only complaint would be that he comes across a little too reserved or stuck-up at times, and that I tribute to the lack of honest, expressive speeches he gets to make, and that the lighter side of the whole story is left out. He never lacks for charm, sincerity or cheerful optimism though, and one thing done exactly right is his righteous anger; seething underneath his outward calm.

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.

The gorgeous Sophia Myles is Nicholas's sister Kate, and she winds up in the same place as most other characters; she is obviously well-cast, but doesn't get quite enough time to give the character a full, totally satisfying arc. She does do Kate's kindness, gentleness and sweetness every bit of credit it deserves though, in a true, sincere way. Their mother may fall into the same category of lacking time also, but of that I'm actually glad, since here, she doesn't go on endless flighty ramblings, but you know that she could at any moment, and the threat of it is enough.

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.


  1. I've not seen this adaptation, but clearly given that cast list, I *need* too. All I've seen is the Hollywood version which (for me) was quite entertaining since I love costume drama, period. Sure I understand some are much better quality, but it was still a decent Dickens film. Thanks for reminding me of this one, Sarah. *Goes to add it to Amazon cart* :)

    1. Yes, do! It has a great cast, and is better than the other version in my opinion. That one wasn't terrible, but didn't work for me. It's main fault was that Charlie Hunman was majorly miscast as Nicholas. And it's even shorter than this one. But yes, it was decent. I hope you enjoy this one even more! :)

  2. This is the adaption you were telling me about! I've got to watch it since it has James D'Arcy. I'm so glad you liked it...the one other adaption of the book I saw rather turned me away from the story. Those screenshots look so perfect, now I really want to watch it. :) Great review!


    1. Yes, it is, and yes you should, because yes he is, and it's awesome! :D I didn't totally hate the other version, but this one is much truer to the book and therefore better in my opinion. But the book is still the best. ;) I hope you do, and I hope you enjoy it! Thanks Sarah! :)

  3. Great review! I really liked this adaptation. I've not yet read the book, so I didn't 'miss' anything or found it very rushed. At least not in contrast to the Charlie Hunnam version (blegh).
    Interestingly, the BBC made a modern adaptation of the story of Nicholas Nickleby. It's called, not surprisingly, Nick Nickleby and I thought it was really quite good.

    1. Thank you! I want to watch it again now that it's been a while since I read the book, and I bet it'll feel less rushed. Haha, I know, I really tried to like the Charlie Hunman version, but some things really bothered me about it even before I'd read the book and knew what they'd done wrong. Cool! I'll have to check that out, that's a neat idea. :)