Here's director Douglas McGrath's problem: He's too big a wimp to realize that it's necessary to string the audience along for as long as possible in an emotional drama.
"Nicholas Nickleby" starts out quite depressingly, but McGrath essentially gives up half way through the film by telegraphing Nickleby's ascension toward happiness. In fact, for the movie to work in any reasonable way, it should not be clear to the audience that Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) is going to survive all the horrible things heaped upon him by such people as his mean Uncle Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer). Unfortunately, McGrath is so in love with the idea of filling the movie with as many fun, supporting characters as possible that Nicholas has nothing left to overcome by the end of the film. We're practically rooting for Uncle Ralph to wipe that smirk off Nicholas's face.
And that's another thing: Hunnam's performance is way too cheery. He plays Nicholas as an irrepressible spirit and we never doubt that even while he's watching Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) beat little children senseless with a stick, he's easily going to overcome it all and get some measure of revenge. McGrath's idea of a transition is to go from child abuse to Nicholas's sister Kate's (Romola Garai) big dilemma, which is that Uncle Ralph is trying to marry her off to some awful icky friend of his. Okay, so the guy is disgusting and making all sorts of unwanted advances, but the effect of going from the "school" where the kids are starving and getting beaten to Kate standing in her cute dress complaining about the nasty, old man (mind you, this is London circa 1880) led one woman in the front row to stand up and yell, "Bitch, get some perspective!"
When Nicholas leaves the "school," he takes his new, best friend and resident cripple, Smike (Jamie Bell), with him to London. Smike is the source of much sympathy. However, because Smike falls in love with Kate (a union about as likely as one between Laura Bush and Ozzy Osbourne), Smike the cripple gets killed off solely for narrative convenience. Bell apparently took his acting lessons from Gollum in "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." They move alike and look alike, leading one to think that perhaps the Dickens estate ought to think about suing the Tolkien estate. Either that or the makers of Nicholas Nickleby should have CGI-ed Jamie Bell and made him really freaky because there's no chance in hell that this sappy, predictable film will gross 1/1000th of what "LOTR: The Two Towers" will.
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