Nicholas Nickleby



USA (US/UK) 2002 : Douglas McGRATH : 132 mins

Charlie Hunnam – the sexually adventurous Manchester schoolboy from Channel 4’s Queer As Folk – finds himself a very long way from Canal Street in the latest version of Dickens’ classic morality tale. With the blond locks and creamy complexion of a boyband refugee, he’s physically perfect for the role of an idealistic young Victorian gent nobly crusading to save his family and friends from penury, injustic and disgrace.

But Hunnam doesn’t yet possess the acting chops needed to keep pace with the stable of top-notch character-actors assembled around him by American writer-director McGrath: Christopher Plummer as schemingly cold-hearted Uncle Ralph; Jim Broadbent as sadistic Yorkshire schoolmaster Wackford Squeers; Nathan Lane and Barry Humphries top value as the husband-and-wife theatrical impresarios who take Nickleby under their wing.

Alongside such shamelessly colourful ‘turns’, it’s perhaps inevitable that the younger generation – Hunnam, Anne Hathaway as his love interest, Romola Garai as his sister, Jamie Bell as his tragic friend Smike – don’t make so much impact. Tellingly, the junior performer who fares best – Heather Goldenhersh as Squeers’ romantically deluded daughter Fanny – is also the one who sails closest to caricature, and also the one who has the least burden to carry plot-wise.

Apart from some wayward accents, however, McGrath’s achievement is hard to fault: this is as fast-paced, economic and accessibly entertaining a rendition of the dauntingly long book as it’s possible to imagine. But isn’t it a little disappointing that he’s quite so comfortable working within the corset-like confines of established ‘heritage’ costume-pic film-making? This is supposed to be the 21st century, after all.

15th June, 2003
(seen 8th June: Showcase, Dudley)

by Neil Young