Douglas McGrath’s new film adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby begins with the opening credits over shots of a Victorian doll house and what looks like the stage of a puppet theatre. The idea, I think, is to prepare us for its highly-stylized, almost comic-book version of Dickens — in whom there is, of course, always a good deal of the comic book, and never more so than in Nickleby. The good characters are so very good and the bad so very, very bad that it could be regarded as a pardonable mistake on McGrath’s part to have supposed that this massive novel could be condensed into a two-hour movie for children with all its essentials intact.
But pardonable or not, it was a mistake. Even for those who have not read the novel, the sense of abbreviation will be inescapable. Over and over again we are left with the sense that great chunks of development or explanation have been left out so that we can see only the highlights of the story. This is especially regrettable in the case of some of the more unfamiliar Victorian tropes, such as the noble defense by Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) of the honor of his sister (Romola Garai) — “the very definition of goodness” as Lord Verisopht (Nicholas Rowe) says — against the seducer, Sir Mulberry Hawk (Edward Fox), or the devotion of Madeleine Bray (Anne Hathaway) to her worthless father (David Bradley) or the renunciation by Smike (Jamie Bell) of his love for Kate. These are things a modern audience takes a bit of getting used to before their moral force is realized.
Villainy is easier to abbreviate than goodness, and Jim Broadbent’s Squeers and Juliet Stevenson’s Mrs. Squeers (“There’s not a person in all England can bring a person’s pride down quicker than you can, my dear”) are undoubtedly the best things in the movie. Fox’s Sir Mulberry is an equally impressive caricature villain, and Christopher Plummer’s Ralph Nickleby would have a memorably chilling quality if it weren’t for the fact that the story has been so cut up that it’s hard to understand why he does anything he does. And his inability to spot the likely harm to his schemes of harboring in his household such an obvious malcontent as Newman Noggs (Tom Courtenay) is simply inexplicable.
But if the evil retains some of its Dickensian power, goodness abbreviated tends to come out merely insipid. Mr Bell (of Billy Elliot) takes a manful swipe at Smike, but the poor creature was too obviously created only to die pitiably. The intimate friendships that Nicholas forms with Noggs, Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane) and the Cheerybles (Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan) seem to come out of nowhere to provide him with necessary succor at difficult times of his life. This is of course mighty convenient for him, but as none of these characters has any life to speak of apart from the services he renders to Nicholas, they end up looking like a collection of grotesque dei ex machina.
The 1982 RSC version of Nickleby starring Roger Rees was made into a TV miniseries that ran over eight hours, and it is tempting to think that this is the least you can do for a novel that would take twice as long as that to read. Dickens achieves his effects by a massive accretion of detail illuminated by frequent lightning flashes. If you only have the lightning flashes, you are left with nothing much for them to illuminate. The result is that most of Dickens’s affecting moral lessons are reduced to banalities. And of the Dickensian ideas allowed to remain, there is something suspiciously familiar about the irony of Squeers’s saying “Subdue your appetites and you have conquered human nature” or about Crummles’s ringing affirmation at the end that “Family is defined not only by those with whom you share blood but those for whom you would give blood.”
Ah, yes. Hollywood strikes again.