Texan filmmaker Douglas McGrath has developed something of a pedigree with cinematic adaptation having adapted Jane Austen's Emma to screen in 1996, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and more recently, produced Infamous, the latest treatment of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.
This 2002 version of Charles Dickens' novel Nicholas Nickleby is closer in tone and style to Emma than McGrath's other works. Both adaptations are lustrous evocations of nineteenth century England, notable for starring glamourous up and coming stars.
As with Gwyneth Paltrow taking on Emma Woodhouse in McGrath's Emma, Charlie Hunnam is similarly a sleekly handsome blonde bombshell, whose gilded good looks dazzle and charm. Paltrow was archly sweet, making for a girlish, endearing, even vulnerable Emma Woodhouse, barely concealed by her defensive wit and snobbishness. Paltrow's interpretation of the role worked well within the fluffy chocolate-box context of McGrath's film. McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby has to indulge in a somewhat darker palette at times, as suits a narrative where cruelty and inhumanity are paramount features. Hunnam plays Nickleby with earnest sweetness, but fails to imbue the character with a sense of emotional depth, and his performance is anaemic and stilted alongside the ranks of fine character actors who illuminate this cast.
Nickleby's eventual love interest, Madeleine Bray, is played here by another up and coming 'looker' with a knack for sweetness - Anne Hathaway. Hathaway struggles to disguise her American accent at times - let's hope she fares better in the forthcoming picture, Becoming Jane, a very loose biopic focusing on Austen's romantic interest in Tom LeFroy.
Stronger here was Romola Garai as a positively luminous Kate Nickleby, while Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson made for deliciously wicked, psychopathic renditions of Wackford Squeers and his wife. Nathan Lane offered suitable comic relief as Vincent Crummles (effectively acting as the film's supra-narrator too), while the brilliant Alan Cummings was sorely under-used as Mr Folair. Amidst a plethora of other notable acting cameos from the likes of Timothy Spall, Tom Courtenay, Phil Davis, Sophie Thompson, Barry Humphries and Edward Fox as a lecherous Sir Mulberry Hawk, Christopher Plummer hammed it grandly as the pernicious Uncle Ralph Nickleby. Meanwhile Jamie Bell made for a suitably tragic Smike - a role which has been grossly over-sentimentalised, both by Dickens and again by McGrath.
Indeed, McGrath has taken on Dickens's penchant for sentimentality with enthusiastic gusto, smothering this film with a thin layer of slightly sickly sentimental goo. The horrors of the gruesome Yorkshire schools, where young boys were tortured and abandoned, are diluted by the saccharine-sweetness which permeates this picture. Money-mad Ralph Nickleby's heartlessness is a foremost factor of course, best conveyed by the humilation he metes out to his niece Kate, through his exposing her to ridicule and lechery amongst his investor clients. But there remains a 'safe' sense throughout - the film lacks an edgy backbone and any audience anxiety has been minimised. The colours, the sets, the costumes, are too sharp, too bright, too technicolour, even in London, where poverty and hardship were obvious and unavoidable factors. Scenes set in Bucolic Devonshire, where the Nickleby's cottage is based, are bathed in honeyed-soft sunlight, ensuring a dreamlike, nostalgic and definitively unreal quality.
Added to this is the pleasant, tooting trademark musical scoring of Rachel Portman, who also scored McGrath's Emma. Indeed, Portman's syrupy, sweet and jocular style ideally suits McGrath's view of nineteenth century England. Her jaunty style is a standout in every film she composes for, including Only You, Chocolat and Polanski's Oliver Twist. She has had an illustrious and successful career, and certainly her musical style is used to good effect here, in that it absolutely matches the director's intent.
Narratologically, McGrath steers a steady if uninspiring course with his adapted screenplay, which is compact and fluent. Nicholas and Smike's stay with Crummles' acting troupe feels a little rushed, but is probably suitably truncated in terms of the over-arching plot. Perhaps the closing stages can be criticised. The Nickleby-Bray romance, while foreshadowed, is hastily engineered, and indeed, the final punishment for his cold-hearted Uncle Ralph is too swift and a little confusing. The closing scenes at the Devonshire cottage are too long and too sappy, and reek of cloying sentimentality.
Dickens is one of our best-loved and most frequently adapted authors. Adaptations tend to fall into two camps: those which offer challenging and richly-rewarding interpretations of his work, where his characters flicker to life in their full multi-faceted glory, and then there are those which serve up strongly drawn caricatures amidst boldy-lit and colourful land and townscapes, revelling in nostalgic, lush evocations of an imagined past. McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby occupies the secondary camp, while the triumphant BBC series of Bleak House in 2005, is a fine example of the first.
Even so, McGrath's film is an enjoyable romp, which does not require a great deal of mental engagement, but at least prompts a smile on a regular basis. It is harmless, frothy fun, neatly packaged with a strong, if thinly-spread cast. Hunnam and Hathaway are at least nice to look at, if a little uninspiring - which pretty much sums up the piece.