"NICHOLAS NICKLEBY" is a once-upon-a-public-TV special with English accents, an embarrassment of British stars, almost no visual adventurousness, and Charles Dickens as its daunting source material.
Set in 19th-century England, the film follows the episodic course of its title character (Charlie Hunnam), whose family is forced to depend on the goodwill of his wealthy uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer) after Nicholas's dearly departed father leaves them destitute.
Ralph promptly dispatches Nicholas to teach at a nasty boarding school run by the one-dimensionally cruel, one-eyed Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his nastier wife (Juliet Stevenson).
Nicholas escapes the school with Smike (Jamie Bell), a crippled pupil who suffers greatly at the hands of the Squeers.
They join up with some traveling actors (Nathan Lane and Alan Cumming), and Nicholas begins to enjoy limited success with them. But he has to return to his dastardly uncle, whose scheming agenda includes fixing up Nicholas's sweet-natured sister with his clients (including Edward Fox as the slimy Sir Mulberry Hawk). Ralph also has similarly destructive designs upon Nicholas's heartthrob, Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway).
The most fun to be had is with the traveling players. Lane steals the movie with his amusing performance as Vincent Crummles. As a stage player, his over-the-top approach is wonderfully appropriate. And that's Barry "Dame Edna" Humphries as Mrs. Crummles.
Cumming is funny, too, as a dancer determined to show off -- but always interrupted from performing -- his Highland fling. And there are nice flashes from Tom Courtenay as Ralph's rebellious assistant, Newman Noggs, and Plummer as the hissily diabolical Uncle Ralph. But Hunnam's Nicholas is annoyingly insipid. It's almost a shame the movie has to revolve around him.
Paring down the lengthy, subplot-heavy novel is a cumbersome task. It ought to have been a television miniseries. Writer-director Douglas McGrath (whose "Emma" was more memorable) has reduced the narrative too well.
Back then, the padding was the point. Dickens's novel amounted to the well-written soap opera of his day. His writing came out in long, entertainingly written magazine installments. You spent time with Dickens.
In the harsh light of moviemaking, the story comes across as truncated, overly simplistic, heavy-handed and mechanically plotted. In terms of dramatic punch, this isn't a movie as much as a fair-to-middlin' staged drama with just enough budget money to pay for the one stagecoach, 19th-century muck in the streets, extras in period clothing, and so on. It's a Filene's Basement epic for the "Masterpiece Theatre" crowd. It's watchable, certainly. It should have been so much more.
NICHOLAS NICKLEBY (PG, 132 minutes) -- Contains emotionally distressing cruelty toward women and children, some violence and a childbirth scene. At Cineplex Odeon Dupont, Landmark Bethesda Row and Cinema Arts Theatre.