I have not seen Nicholas Nickleby since it was first released, and so it’s a pleasure to report the film still has the ability to wash over you with its expansive cast of characters, its broad themes, and a charming storybook visual and editorial sensibility (longer takes, picture-frame compositions, and theatrical blocking). In taking Charles Dickens’s original 952-page novel and condensing it to a mere 132 minutes, writer/director Douglas McGrath has maintained that incomparable spirit of Dickens’s worldview — one of a heightened Victorian England and the makeup of its populace.

So the travels of young Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam, the weakest link among the cast but who gets by just on charm alone) take him from the countryside to London. From rebelling against the crooked, one-eyed, oily-haired head of a rundown school for boys (Jim Broadbent), he joins a traveling theater company, whose participants include an 18-year-old “infant” wonder (Eileen Walsh), an actor (Alan Cumming) whose desire to show off his highland fling is stopped short every time, and the Impresario (Nathan Lane) has a wife who’s a man in drag but not really (Barry Humphries (a.k.a., Dame Edna)). At the start a young man of 19 who has lost of dear father to a broken heart, he becomes the head of his own family, whose members are tied blood or bond but equal in his heart.

While his sister Kate (Romola Garai) defends her honor against the insidious advances of a most ungentlemanly “gentleman” (Edward Fox), Nicholas meets and falls in love with the lovely Madeline (Anne Hathaway), a young lady whose ill father (David Bradley) would offer his daughter in one of few, remaining heartbeats to settle an old debt. He befriends an abandoned teen named Smike (Jamie Bell), the unpaid servant and workhouse of the scummy school headmaster — now beaten, nearly broken, and deathly afraid of trapdoors.

The generosity of his eventual, brotherly employers (Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan) spreads to everyone they encounter, and they hardly know just how kind they are. The cruelty of Nicholas’s uncle Ralph (an icy Christopher Plummer in the film’s best performance) knows no end, and as a cunning businessman, he thrives on his pitiless reputation. “You cannot stain a black coat,” he reminds a man threatening to unleash murmurs of his nature. Taxidermy specimens surround Ralph’s office — an illusion of life as void of it as his own.

McGrath’s screenplay concentrates the plot on the conflict between the benevolent Nicholas, a man who relies on the gaining of friends, and his heartless uncle, a man so focused on the acquisition of wealth that he encourages no loyalty from any man, especially his servant (Tom Courtenay), a regular conspirator with Nicholas against Ralph. In their clash is the usual Dickens’s critique of his society.

As much as the class conflict still strikes a nerve, it’s McGrath’s dedication to populating the story with as many characters as possible and, more importantly, spending time with even the ones who are not vital to the narrative that set Nicholas Nickleby as an especially fine adaptation.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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