Nicholas Nickleby

| September 7, 2003

It is notable that apart from David Lean’s Great Expectations–an adaptation of a layered, subtle novel that fortunately for Lean has an incredibly dramatic linear narrative running through it–the best adaptations of Dickens have been versions of A Christmas Carol, a text which is essentially a morality short-story. Dickens’ long, rambling, brilliantly digressive texts with their casts of eccentric heroes and awful villains lend themselves more to television adaptations. The BBC makes a 10-week version of one of the key texts every couple of years, keeping veteran odd-looking British actors in work and maintaining the Dickens culture industry as second only to Shakespeare. It is a veritable winter tradition (you can’t read Dickens in the summer–I just finished Bleak House in August which was a very odd experience). We ooh and aah over the labyrinthine plot and attention to detail, laugh at the campy music-hall versions of Victorian London, and generally pat the BBC on the back for producing quality heritage television.
A Christmas Carol is quintessentially Dickens–haunting, sentimental, mawkish, and heart-warming, a brilliantly executed plot. From the Muppets to Blackadder to Bill Murray, this great little melodrama has been rendered campy, sensationalist, caricatured and hammed up. You can’t do Dickens straight–even he performed his works (to great public acclaim) in a hugely caricatured fashion. They are meant to be over the top, that is why we read them and love them. If you want gritty realism read Mrs Gaskell (who has fewer jokes–and Dickens was also as good a social satirist and reformer).
All of which digressive opening leads me reluctantly to discussion of Nicholas Nickleby, which cuts down a huge and complex novel badly, underegging the camp and overdoing the heritage. Any seasoned historical-brit-film/ TV adaptation spotter could name the cast with their eyes closed, and for the main part they drift through their roles as if just wearing a top-hat and smearing some dust on their face makes a performance (in fact, in the case of Tom Courtenay–great, as per usual–it just about does). Juliet Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply) wields one of the worse Yorkshire accents I have ever heard–Daphne’s Mancunian in Frasier is more accurate (note to all American readers: her manc accent is about as good as my Tennessee twang. Which is to say, not at all). Jim Broadbent (Iris, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Topsy Turvy), normally so generous and solid, is here awkward and shrill. Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) is an unfeasibly well-spoken, robust looking Smike (even when dying of consumption you expected him to leap from his sickbed and execute a perfect pirouette). To steal a phrase, anyone in the cinema who wasn’t cheering when he carked it had to have a heart of stone.
The adaptation of the plot is a mess leaving the film uneven and disjointed. This is reflected in the scene-editing which jumps around too much–we cut to a scene apparently at random, with no sense of fluidity or development. The theatrical scenes–when Nicholas randomly joins a stage company, plays Romeo to acclaim, then leaves–are just embarrassing, an odd luvvie interlude with no perceptible purpose. Alan Cumming (X-Men) dances a Highland fling for no apparent reason and it is all about as funny as walking into a lamppost. The script is clunky and, though replicating the elaborate patterns of Dickens’ text well enough, the actors are not led through it particularly well and end up swallowing great chunks of it or just going on and on until they eventually run out of steam. The only clipped, lean performance is Christopher Plummer as Nicholas’ evil uncle–but he has no back-story and we don’t really care about why he is bad. A long, complex characterisation in the text (although he is also just plain nasty) is reduced to a few cold stares in the film.
I actually had some initial sympathy for the debutant Charlie Hunnam who plays the eponymous Nicholas–Dicken’s heroes are always a bit dull, and he hasn’t much to work with. However this sympathy evaporated after about 10 minutes of his interminably mannered speech, ponderousness and general terribleness. He was a great absence in the midst of a preening, pointless piece of Heritage filmmaking, made to sell a version of Englishness throughout the world that frankly I would rather disassociate myself from. It just isn’t enough to have good period costumes and well put together scenery–the acting has to be joined up, the plotline sorted out, someone should have cut the syrupy speeches about family and could they please not be so bloody sincere about it all?
I won’t waste your time rehearsing the plot and talking through the film–this really is an instance when I can wholeheartedly recommend that you read the book. As for this grim little adaptation, the sentiment is too cloying, the characters prissily caricatured and smugly funny, and the entire experience deeply dissatisfying. Who funds this rubbish? And who pays to go see it? It upsets me on so many cultural, social, political and intellectual levels I’m going to have to sit down. The whole thing is unpleasantly little-English, unthinking and self-satisfied.

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