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Nicholas Nickelby

03 Jun

Nicholas Nickleby – directed by Douglas McGrath. Period Dramedy. 132 minutes Color 2002.

★★★★★

The Story: A multitude of coincidences and outrages and improbable persons converge to thwart and encourage a nineteen-year-old to care for and save his sister and widowed mother from destitution, derangement, and doom.
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The recipe for a Dickens pie is to cook the first comic characters early and let their tang fade as the villains appear and let the villains fade as the romantic leads cinch the finale. Sprinkle Pathos Persons over the crust and devour.

What this means – but, fear not, the plot will out – is that love conquers all. It may as well, because the love interest here is played by two young beauties, Charlie Hunnam and Anne Hathaway.

The problem is that romantic love in Dickens is more a function of pity than sexual drive. Sex drive in his romantic leads is pictured more as feeling sorry for someone. Lovers are drawn to one another on rafts of compassion splashed with the lesser rain of pathos. Thus – real– but not quite real.

This means that the meanies and clowns dominate our interest.

So that Christopher Plummer’s brilliance as Old Man Nickleby astonishes us with his perfectly distributed sang froid, while the travelling theatre impresario Mr. Crummles of Nathan Lane fades under his nutty general good-heartedness – not without leaving behind a vivid memory of his wife played to a T by Barry Humphries inhabiting Dame Edna Etheridge as his grandiosely burbling and blindly devoted wife.

And the early villains fade behind the later ones. Jim Broadbent plays the defective school principal Wackford Squeers all out, and, boy, is he frightening! – as he should be – and, if he is not excelled in cruelty to children by his wife, done by Juliet Stevenson, that is because we are too blinded by the brilliance of both actors to distinguish one meanness over the other. You wonder how it is possible that English actors dare to body forth persons of such characteristic English vileness, but here they are, no holds barred.

But such is Dickens plenitude, that he has lots to spare as one richness is supplanted by the next.

The lubricious Sir Mulberry Hawk is given to Edward Fox to personate and bring to ruination, but he too disappears under the pustules of his disgrace, while Tom Courtenay as Plummer’s insolent coocoo-clock butler bores through his tippling to save the day for one and all.

You find Jamie Bell as Smike – the crippled dogsbody of the Squeers’ Dotheboys school and confidante of our hero, young Nickleby who kidnaps him away from it and saves Smike from being beaten to death. He dies beforehand, though.

The moving picture medium suits such a character as Smike because his painful lameness becomes visible there, so it carries an impact unwitnessed on the printed page, even those of the impressive Dickens. Likewise true of the Tweedledum and Tweedledee characters of the Cheeryble brothers played by Timothy Spall and Gerald Horan, masterfully bewigged for the roles – or role. Hello. Goodbye.

Because of the great entertainment value of Dickens’ material from its start as a serial in a magazine, then into a 600-page novel, Nicholas Nickleby has charmed its way into drama before now, as in the filmed 8-hour stage version.

But you cannot beat this 132-minute movie for its writing and casting and fully realized parts. It contains Christopher Plummer’s greatest film performance. The scar of his handsome, cockeyed face presents a temperament seized with the discretion of a rapier never drawn, always sheathed, always covered with blood. I love actors, let me say it again: I am always at a wonder how they dare to admit to the light of day that they have in them persons so vile.

Or so foolish. Or so funny.

Of course, no smart actor thinks his character is vile or foolish or even funny.

Every actor must take his character as the one vital to embody and preserve the highest of human values for all God’s eternity!

Those values, in their rainbow scope, are available to the reader or watcher of Dickens. Film nowadays may be interloped with an exclusifying crudeness, but the values of Nicholas Nickleby are real and do exist and are abroad in the air in their conflict with one another still. One place we go to appreciate, remember, and take sides with them, in and for our souls and hearts, is in the work and the fun of Charles Dickens.

 

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