Movie Review: Nicholas Nickleby

“They came to see that family need not be defined merely as those with whom they share blood, but as those for whom they would give their blood.”

Since watching Pride and Prejudice a few days ago, I’ve been in the mood to watch more movies made from classic British novels. One of my favorites of these movies—and one of the most painfully overlooked—is 2002’s Nicholas Nickleby, written for the screen and directed by Douglas McGrath who also wrote for the screen and directed 1996’s Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

The novel of Nicholas Nickleby was originally written by Charles Dickens around 1839 and is about young Nicholas, played by Charlie Hunnam (Cold Mountain, Green Street Hooligans) who, along with his mother and sister, is left destitute upon his father’s untimely death. They travel to London to visit their wealthy uncle, played by Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), hoping to appeal to his feelings of familial obligation and throw themselves upon his mercy. Their uncle proceeds to let them think that he is generously giving them support and favors, but in the end, he is only serving his own selfish desires with no though for their well being at all.

An early, but major, storyline is what takes place at Dotheboy’s Hall, a boarding school in the country for young boys run by Mr. Wackford Squeers, played by Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge!, The Borrowers). It is to here that Nicholas is sent by his uncle as an opportunity to earn a living. The abuse portrayed at the boarding school actually occurred in Dicken’s days and was one of his main catalysts for writing this novel, but however, by the time it was published, these “cheap” Yorkshire boarding schools were no longer much of a problem.

If there is a recurring theme in Charles Dickens Writings, it’s that of how society looks upon and treats the poor and destitute. An interesting thing about this story, however, is that the Nicklebys don’t start out poor, but it’s through the unfortunate occurrences which happen at the beginning that they end up in a position of need, and it’s through those circumstances that they see how cruel the world can be. It’s also through these trials, that when Nicholas begins to stand up for himself and his family is when he begins to see all of the wonderful things the world has to offer and how much control over his own destiny he can truly have.

One of the most touching storylines in this movie is between Nicholas and a young crippled boy he befriends at Dotheboy’s Hall named Smike, played by Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, King Kong). Smike was sent to Dotheboy’s for schooling years before, but when payment for his education stopped coming, he was put into hard service at the school. It is in witnessing the abuse and neglect of Smike that transforms Nicholas into a character who acts rather than one who waits to be acted upon.

The performance of Jamie Bell as Smike is well worth making note of. The way he contorts his body and changes his countenance makes you really believe he is as crippled as Smike. By the end, Smike is one of the most pitiful and endearing characters I’ve ever seen on screen—his history and fate, deeply moving. It’s really a shame he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for it.

There is a richness and wit to the language of Charles Dickens that is so prevalent in this movie adaptation. I’ve not read the novel, but can judge from the other books by Dickens that I have read that much of the dialogue is either taken directly from the novel, or Douglas McGrath is a master at capturing the tone that Dickens had.

Nicholas Nickleby is rated PG for “thematic material involving some violent action and a childbirth scene.” The “childbirth scene” is actually just a shot of a very newborn baby against a black background and then a shot of the umbilical cord being cut. There’s no labor or real birthing involved and it all goes by in less than 5 seconds at the very start of the movie.

This is a great story of love, loyalty, and standing up against injustice in defense of the helpless. It wasn’t until my 8-year-old daughter wandered downstairs while I was watching it that I realized that this would actually be suitable for older children. They might struggle with the language and there are a couple of scenes showing brutality towards children, but overall, there are some great lessons to be learned. If your children are up to it, this movie may serve them well. Indeed, if this movie has gone overlooked by you, as it has by a great many people, you owe it to yourself to see it.

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