The usually benevolent Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson are perfectly sadistic as Mr. and Mrs. Squeers, teachers and torture-inflictors at the Yorkshire-based and quite disturbingly named Dotheboys Hall. Our young hero Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam) is dispatched to teach at the foul, abusive school after his father (Andrew Havill) dies, sending him, his mother (Stella Gonet) and his emotionally challenged sister, Kate (Romola Garai), to London to beg career-assistance from his tight-fisted uncle, Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer). Mayhem ensues, especially when Nicholas takes it upon himself to avenge the ravaged orphans against Mr. Squeers, lighting out with the particularly thrashed laddie Smike (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot). Miraculously, McGrath (who last directed Emma) tidies up Dickens' copious subplots without losing his essence.
Just about the only problem with this Nicholas essentially a centenary edition following the book's first cinematic adaptation in 1903 is that its lead is a pretty-boy liability. Posturing instead of acting, ditzy blond Hunnam (of Queer As Folk and Abandon) appears to be an extra or assistant gaffer who accidentally hit the jackpot. He stands on his marks, sports a foppish cravat and says all his words in the right order, but otherwise he's a black hole in the middle of his own movie, a wooden Nickleby.
The shame is that the rest of the film is very impressive. Is it too late to replace him digitally?
Playing with Dickens earns varying results from Henry Winkler in the cutesy modern-day television version of A Christmas Carol to Alec Guinness in Christine Edzard's six bludgeoning hours of Little Dorrit but, apart from casting slummy Hunnam (who makes Cider House-era Tobey Maguire seem like Olivier), McGrath has a strong handle on Nicholas. Take, for example, the flight of the hero and Smike to Liverpool, where they join a troupe of zany actors including Alan Cumming (talk about goddamned cutesy) and Eileen Walsh, plus both Barry Humphries and his alter ego, Dame Edna (both queasy), under the leadership of Nathan Lane. A lesser director would have lost his way in the spectacle; McGrath reveals the glory of theater one of Dickens' true loves and hits a truly moving note, then economically shuttles us along.
All other performers are splendid. Plummer steals every frame he's in, a terrific Dickens villain but also a perfect counterbalance for his comparatively vanilla turn as a fatherly customs official in Ararat last year.
As aforementioned, Broadbent is a blast, so mean he's funny, especially when muttering about his speciality of "capturing wayward boys" is this Yorkshire, or Neverland? Bell skillfully delivers the hopeful but terribly downtrodden Smike (imagine DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, only 10 times better), and Edward Fox turns up as what appears to be craggy, present-day Bob Dylan (but isn't). As Ralph's assistant, Newman Noggs, Tom Courtenay (a legend from Billy Liar onward) strikes chords of dignity and identity as vital as the main story, and Timothy Spall (All or Nothing), Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) and British television star Gerard Horan round out a fine ensemble cast.
In terms of design and execution, this Nicholas is a beaut, with the gorgeous, percolating score of Rachel Portman (Cider House Rules again!) interlacing the bucolic charm of the Nickleby country manor, the horrors of Dotheboys and the grit and grime of modernizing London. The tasteful little revision works wonders, enhancing the cultural and economic subtext, bringing richer meaning to the story's morals. One imagines the author would approve.