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In the Nick of Time: Charlie Hunnam plays Nicholas Nickleby in a fast-paced Dickens adaptation.

Timeless Nick

Douglas McGrath finds the morsels in Dickens' rambling classic 'Nicholas Nickleby'

By Richard von Busack

SUPPOSEDLY, Nicholas Nickleby was the first Dickens novel filmed. The 1903 moviemakers zeroed in on the heart of the book; their early film was a snippet about the abuse of the students at the infamous Dotheboys Hall, run by that flogging fanatic, the one-eyed Wackford Squeers. Lethal boarding schools were the springboard for Dickens' novel; the rest of the story is but delirious Victorian gingerbread. Douglas McGrath's limber new screen adaptation of Dickens' rambling book doesn't neglect Dotheboys, with its cargo of students who sleep in coffin-shaped boxes, presumably to make them easy to bury if they starve.

Nicholas Nickleby was also filmed in 1947 by the South American-born director Alberto Cavalcanti (who did the finest version of the venerable bad-ventriloquist story, in the 1946 horror anthology Dead of Night). But McGrath doesn't make his Nicholas Nickleby an Expressionist film, as Cavalcanti's version was. This Nickleby is framed, cleverly, as a stage entertainment, from the title sequence of a toy theater to the cast all but taking a bow at the end. The popular nine-hour stage version from 15 years ago was an inspiration in showing how this lobster of a plot could be cracked open for its morsels.

Essentially, the story tells of a family ruined by bad investments, and how a 19-year-old go-getter, Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam, from TV's Queer as Folk), tries to make his way in the world. First, he's a teacher at Dotheboys. Later, he's an actor in the Crummles' very peculiar Shakespearean company (as Mr. Crummles, the usually too-broad-for-the-screen Nathan Lane is a pleasure, as is his assistant, played by Alan Cumming). Lastly, Nicholas works as a clerk at the Cheeryble's company, where the benefits and salary beggar even the glory days at Hewlett-Packard.

Nicholas has to act fast. His sister (Romola Garai) is being sexually harassed by a gaping old ruin of a rake named Sir Mulberry Hawk (Edward Fox). Conspiring against Nicholas is Dotheboys' proprietor, Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent), and his equally hideous wife (Juliet Stevenson). Both of these educators are in the pay of Nicholas' wicked Uncle Ralph, played by Christopher Plummer in a performance of top-hatted villainy much preferable to Daniel Day-Lewis' rumbustiousness in Gangs of New York. Plummer nurses his plots in an office surrounded by pathetic bird skeletons and specimen eggs propped up by iron bands. When not enslaving and pimping his relatives, the old sinner seems to pursue the hobby of ornithology. One bird Uncle Ralph almost collects is the film's ingenue, Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway from The Princess Diaries). Madeline is described as "the prettiest girl in London," and Hathaway certainly looks it.

Despite the top-notch cast, the appeal of this film version of Nicholas Nickleby is rooted in the appeal of the story itself. It's a tale of youth and innocence defeating old age and treachery, which is exactly the opposite of the way it works in real life.

Nicholas Nickleby (PG; 132 min.), directed and written by Doug McGrath, based on the novel by Charles Dickens, photographed by Dick Pope and starring Charlie Hunnam, Christopher Plummer and Anne Hathaway, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the January 1-8, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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