Nicholas Nickleby

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1838) may be Charles Dickens's greatest novel, but at 900 pages it's a lot to dramatize—Trevor Nunn and David Edgar's brilliant 1980 adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company (later televised and released on video) ran more than eight hours. This is the fourth celluloid version, and though writer-director Douglas McGrath has shrunk the comic epic to 108 minutes, he's left plenty of room for his fine cast to have at their colorful characters. Dickens wrote the novel as an exposé of the hellish private schools in Yorkshire: teenage Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam), whose father has died, seeks a position from his father's estranged brother (a grimly humorous Christopher Plummer) and is sent to be an instructor at Dotheboys Hall, where the boys are starved, beaten, and emotionally pummeled by the one-eyed schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent), and his brackish wife (Juliet Stevenson). Later Nicholas is adopted by a brotherly theater troupe that includes Nathan Lane and Alan Cumming, and he's rescued for a while by the incredible beneficence of his new employers, the Cheeryble brothers (Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan). In our second gilded age the word Dickensian has become synonymous with cruelty and greed, yet as this wonderful adaptation reminds us, Dickens endures mostly because of his characters' extravagant kindness.

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