With his complex plots and casts of (often literally) hundreds of characters, Charles Dickens might not seem the most cinema-friendly of novelists, but as of January 2007 no fewer than 235 works are credited on the IMDb as being based on his works, all the way back to "The Death of Nancy Sykes" in 1897. In recent years, however, most of these have been multi-part series made for television, a medium which often seems better equipped to deal with Dickens's complexities than does the cinema. The most popular of his works in the cinema has been "A Christmas Carol", which is a novella rather than a novel, followed by "Oliver Twist" and "Great Expectations", both of which are among his shorter novels, and which are often simplified for the screen. Roman Polanski's recent "Oliver Twist", for example, omitted many of Dickens's details and sub-plots in order to concentrate on the essence of the story.
"Nicholas Nickleby", by contrast, is one of Dickens's lengthier novels, so it was perhaps a brave move to adapt it for the screen. The title character is the son of an impoverished country gentleman. When his father dies heavily in debt, young Nicholas sets out for London with his mother and sister Kate, hoping that his wealthy uncle Ralph will be able to help them. Ralph, however, proves to be arrogant, cold-hearted and avaricious. He takes Kate into his home, motivated not by kindness but by the hope that he might be able to marry her off to his business associate, Sir Mulberry Hawke. He sends Nicholas to Yorkshire to work as an assistant teacher in a run-down boys' boarding school, run by a sadistic headmaster named Wackford Squeers. Nicholas is appalled not only by Squeers's ignorance but also by his neglect of and cruelty towards the boys in his care; he is eventually forced to leave the school after intervening to prevent Squeers beating a crippled boy named Smike, who will play an important role in future plot developments. After a brief interval as an actor, Nicholas returns to London to be reunited with his family.
Dickens's villains are generally more memorable than his heroes (and even more so than his heroines, who are often rather colourless), and that is reflected in this film. Even an actress as lovely as Anne Hathaway tends to fade into the background as the saintly Madeline, Nicholas's love-interest. Romola Garai is rather livelier as the spirited Kate, and Charlie Hunnam makes her brother an honourable and brave, if headstrong, hero. The performances that stand out, however, are from Jim Broadbent as the vicious Squeers, Juliet Stephenson as his equally unpleasant wife, Edward Fox as the dissipated lecher Sir Mulberry (who turns his attentions to Madeline when he realises that Kate is not for him) and Christopher Plummer as Ralph, outwardly calm and rational but inwardly cold and stony-hearted, a man who cares for nobody except himself and for nothing except his bank balance. It is noteworthy that Ralph's luxurious house is filled with stuffed animals and birds, presumably intended to symbolise his cruelty and sadism. The one piece of casting I didn't like was that of "Dame Edna Everage" (a creation of the Australian comedian Barry Humphries) as Mrs Crummles; the idea of a fictitious female character being played by another fictitious character, who is herself being played by a male actor, is a bizarre, almost surreal, one. The only place for a pantomime dame is in a pantomime.
There have been complaints on this board that some reviewers' favourite characters or episodes from the novel have been omitted from the film, but such simplification is inevitable if a nine hundred page novel is to be adapted into a feature film with a running time of just over two hours. What matters is that the feel of the film is authentically Dickensian, and this is achieved here, not only through the recreation, in best "heritage cinema" style, of the England of the 1840s, but also through the steadily growing sense that good will triumph over evil, that the heroes will be vindicated and that the villains will receive their just deserts. This is a very good Dickens adaptation, on a par with Polanski's film and much better than Alfonso Cuaron's eccentric "Great Expectations". 8/10