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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Nicholas Nickleby (review)

It’s wonderful to be reminded that in a time when institutions were ruled by terror and powerful men wielded their influence like a weapon, kindness and charity could still win in the end — it gives one hope for today. Of course, Charles Dickens’ honorable and compassionate Nicholas Nickleby was fictional, but his popularity a century and a half ago and his resonance today surely indicates that if we haven’t yet achieved widespread basic human decency, the journey toward it at least continues. Adapted for the screen and directed by Douglas McGrath (Company Man) — who gave us the delightful film version of Jane Austen’s Emma a few years back — this is a scrumptious production of deliciously wicked villains and charmingly noble heroes. The cast is a movie lover’s dream: Christopher Plummer (A Beautiful Mind) as the ruthless Ralph Nickleby; Nathan Lane (Stuart Little 2) as the generous theatrical impresario Vincent Crummles (and “Dame Edna” as his wife!); the indispensable Jim Broadbent (Gangs of New York) as one of the vilest of Dickens’ characters, the cruel schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, and woefully underappreciated Juliet Stevenson as the wretched Mrs. Squeers. But it’s Nickleby‘s two young stars who dazzle. Jamie Bell proves his wise turn in Billy Elliot was no fluke as he imbues the abused and crippled Smike with dignity and asks for no pity, making Smike all the more heartbreaking for Bell’s refusal to mire his character in misery. And the winsome Charlie Hunnam, who was barely allowed to make an impression in this year’s Abandon, is entirely commanding in the title role, taking a character who could be insufferably virtuous and breathing into him dimensions of rage, confusion, and self-doubt. McGrath keeps the entire production on the right side of that fine line, giving us heroes and villains who are, in the end, decidedly human, making us understand just how easy it can be to fall into darkness and how hard it can be to stay in the light.


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MPAA: rated PG for thematic material involving violent action and a childbirth scene

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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