Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
Our rating: 3 out of 5
None of Charles Dickens' novels are light reading. Most of them are dark, morbid, and melancholy but have a certain sardonic sense of humor. Nicholas Nickleby is one of the lesser known volumes but also one of my favorites. I was eager therefore to see the Bravo adaptation which is supposedly much closer to the book. Overall I was disappointed. The filmmakers chose to incorporate lecherous designs and sexual undercurrent much more than in the later Hollywood adaptation or the novel. This in itself ruined many aspects of the film.
Much to the misfortune of his family, Mr. Nickleby has died, leaving his widow and two children Nicholas (James D'Arcy) and Kate (Sophia Myles) penniless. In hope of gaining financial assistance from her husband's older brother Ralph, Mrs. Nickleby takes her family to London. A distinguished old moneylender with a heart of ice, Ralph (Charles Dance) is displeased at being left to care for his brother's family. He immediately seeks to employ Nicholas under Mr. Squeers, an out of town schoolmaster who takes in boarders. Under the impression the school is perfectly respectable, Nicholas leaves his family for the northern country. Having been "rid" of his nephew, Ralph next seeks to employ Kate with a local dressmaker. Being a young woman with virtue and innocence on her side, she supposes her uncle's intentions are only for the best and weathers her new employment willingly, shedding many tears in secret, little knowing the fates which await both herself and her brother. Nicholas has discovered the "school" is an abominable place where the boys are starved, mistreated, beaten, and forced to work.
Among the children is an abused young man named Smike (Lee Ingleby) whom the Squeers kept "out of the goodness of their hearts" after his benefactor stopped sending payments to keep him enrolled. A sickly creature with a bad foot, Smike is berated, whipped, cuffed, and shouted at with little compassion or heed for his weak memory. At first Nicholas turns a blind eye. But after an accident in which Smike is badly hurt falling down a flight of stairs, the cripple runs away. The Squeers set out after him in a violent wrath and Nicholas becomes his savior when he refuses to allow the schoolmaster to whip him until he bleeds. Taking the boy in hand, Nicholas flees the school, leaving many foul feelings behind -- and an unconscious Sqeers. The news travels swiftly to London by the pen of young Fanny Squeers, who considers herself "rejected in love" by Nicholas and seeks to ruin him. In the meantime, Kate has become an outcast at the dressmaker's, for her pretty face has become too popular with the clients.
A misfortune turns her out into the street and Uncle Ralph has even more sinister plans in store for her. Having read the novel and seen the Douglas McGrath version by the same name, I was eager to see how the Bravo adaptation differed. As it turns out, this adaptation is a lot closer to the book... but also a lot more offensive. I like the other adaptation better because I felt it improved on the atmosphere and was less lecherous, but if you want an adaptation almost exactly like the novel, this is it. The best aspect of this production is how expertly the two stories are woven together to create a whole. Scenes filter back and forth between Kate and Nicholas, giving the illusion of things happening to different people at the same time. The soundtrack is memorable and varies from lighthearted to darkly sardonic and melancholy. But what really stands out here is the acting. James D'Arcy in the lead is brilliant; he's exactly as Dickens wrote his character... empathetic, but also violent-tempered. Sophia Myles is a lovely Kate, and Charles Dance makes a cold-hearted but almost forgivable Uncle Ralph. But the real standout here is the almost unrecognizable Lee Ingleby as Smike. He turns in a beautiful performance; the audience immediately loves and sympathizes with him. His most touching and heart-wrenching scenes are attempting to remember his lines for Romeo & Juliet (with Nicholas patiently teaching him), and looking at Kate adoringly as he has his miniature painted. Tom Hollander even has a brief role -- and it's the most likable I've ever seen him.
While overall it's a good period drama, I do have harps with the casting, as well as some of the changes made to the script. They severely downplay a key dueling scene, attributing it to a gentlemen's quarrel rather than a character adamantly standing up for a family's honor. I disliked this change primarily because it lessened the sacrifice of the young man involved, who really died in honorable circumstances and not over his wrath at being called a "coward." Dominic West makes a good Mulberry Hawke, but he's too young -- the book implies a good fifteen years older. They also wrote in innuendo and scenes NOT in the book, like Hawke trying to force himself on Kate and the Squeers being all over each other. There is some mild language -- mostly straight out of the novel. Mantalini has the habit of saying "demn" every other word. There's one noted use of "Oh, my God!" The violence isn't very severe or difficult to watch; unlike the other adaptation, Smike is only hit with the rod once before Nicholas intervenes.
Characters are smacked around, thrown to the ground, and punched in the jaw. An argument between two young gentlemen leaves one with a broken arm and the other unconscious on the pavement. A man is shot and killed in a duel (implied, not seen). We see a dead body hanging from the rafters. The real problem is mild sexual elements. Cleavage becomes embarrassing in many of the key scenes, particularly when affectionate husbands like to kiss and caress whatever's visible. Mr. Squeers retrieves an important document from an old crazy woman by wrestling it out of her bodice. After humiliating Kate over dinner, Sir Mulberry Hawke follows her into the billiard room, tries to put his hand down her dress, and finally forces her onto the pool table. This scene wouldn't have been problematic if he didn't have his hand up her skirt. Later he catches up with her on the stairs during a musical performance and forces her to kiss him. In the meantime, her uncle stands by and makes excuses on why he can't intervene after having compromised her integrity in the first place.
A sub-plot involves an older man desiring to marry a young beauty because of her secret fortune. The sight of a seventy-year-old man lustfully eyeing a girl of eighteen is disconcerting. None of the sexual elements portrayed on screen were even alluded to in the novel; I feel they've degraded Dickens and made a politically correct version rather than an accurate one. The humor is almost nonexistent, while in the book it was the main hinge for the storyline. For those of a more courageous nature willing to overlook the film's flaws, this adaptation has several things the later version doesn't -- the violent arguments and daily make-up sessions between Fanny Squeers and her best friend; Ralph's secretary Mr. Noggs cracking his knuckles when agitated and occasionally plummeting the air in his wrath for his employer; and the abdication of a will. It's really a pity filmmakers decided to give Nicholas Nickleby a good dose of impropriety, because in all other ways this adaptation is memorable.