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Chocolate Box Nickleby
on 10 March 2014
Twenty years after the RSC took Nicholas Nickleby to Broadway this version from United Artists - I can easily imagine a young Douglas McGrath watching spellbound from the front row and vowing `One day, I'm gonna make a movie of this'.
This is a very American production - for all it's almost entirely British cast (of whom more anon), and it's great British locations, not just Luton Hoo and Somerset House, but the dear little cottage used in Bleasdale's Twist - it seems that Nicholas and Oliver's Mum grew up in the same house! - this Nickleby looks great, and so say all of us.
Jim Broadbent is just about the best in the cast as Squeers, with Juliet Stephenson lending excellent support as his horrid wife, but Tom Courtney is a very close second as a Newman Noggs so lovely that you want to take him home (but that's Mr Courtney all over, I'm afraid), while Christopher Plummer is properly chilly as Ralph, and Edward Fox suitably toxic as Sir Mulberry Hawk.
Smike? Not so good. I'm sure that Jamie Bell is a very good actor, but he's not being given his head in this - his Smike really isn't the broken misfit that the story requires - he's just a bit lame and lacking confidence (although his pause in Romeo and Juliet is wide enough to drive a coach and horses through); I'd prefer a Yorkshire accent too. And Brooker - why is he so mealy-mouthed? - this is Phil Davies they've paid good money for - why's he having to use the quiet pedal so much? Even Nathan Lane (fresh from playing Max Bialystock in the Producers - see ref to Christopher Benjamin in the RSC version) is a touch subdued as Mr Crummles, leaving the ham to Dame Edna Everage as his wife, but at least their English accents are screwed firmly in place.
Not always, unfortunately with Charlie Hunnam in the title role; he's plausibly nineteen, and brave and handsome, but with that blond bob he looks all too like a nearly grown up Little Lord Fauntleroy, and sometimes sounds like one too as his vowels tend to slide stateside whenever there isn't a British actor nearby to keep an ear on them - an effect that increases as the film goes on, especially when he's alone with Madelaine Bray - Anne Hathaway who, for a namesake of Mrs Shakespeare, really might know better! Once together, they seem dangerously close to declaring `Why gee! You're American too! Let's run away to the Colonies, where you can buy a decent coffee, and nobody talks about the weather, or tries to make you understand cricket!'
But the story is told very well, albeit with inevitable conflations; Madeleine's old suitor is Sir Mulberry, not Arthur Gride, and the Kenwigses are nowhere to be seen, nor that rat Mr Mantalini, but if I have an issue, it is with the creeping sense of Hollywoodyness that really ought to have been chased out with a broom the minute it nosed its way onto set.
Nicholas with his shirt unashamedly off - in front of a lady (well, Mrs Squeers) - it's unheard of; they used to put you in the stocks for that - and the aforesaid Mrs lighting the flogging* of Smike with a flaming torch? Behave. (Though, for some reason, she's very subdued when Nicholas finally thrashes Squeers - maybe it was the sight of the young man with his shirt off). The woods where Nicholas and Smike meet John Browdie seem to be straight out of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and of course the Yorkshire Folk have to sing Ilkley Moor Bar Tat, because that's what they all sing in Yorkshire. It's something of a blessing that Brooker doesn't break into Chim Chimaree.
The darknesses could be darker and the bright spots a little less frosted with fairy dust; with the exception of Squeers (and David Bradley's cough and a spit as Walter Bray to be fair) this Dickens is curiously light on grotesques - even the `little bit peculiars' are somewhat thin on the ground. Tim Spall does a nice job as Charles Cheeryble (and gets star billing), while Gerard Horan doesn't quite match him in benign twinkling (and, rather meanly, does not).
There's a conspicuous lack of focus on Dickens' argument that it's the love of money above all that causes all the suffering; I can imagine some producer-shaped person arguing that hypocrisy really does just as much harm as greed, and maybe that's what Dickens really meant...
All together it is a series of well-made pieces rather than a fully-functioning whole; it's a bright, enthusiastic, engaging telling of a good tale, with some lovely performances, but there's not much sense of all these being components in a greater mechanism, each is rather a stand-alone, as if this Nickleby has been bought piecemeal off the shelf, rather than all being made anew - nothing *wrong* with it, yet a thing that is rather less than the sum of its parts.
I do like the Highland Fling at the end though - for all it looks straight off a shortbread tin lid.
*Mr Broadbent, it is obvious, I'm sorry to say, has never *really* caned anyone in his life.