Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:16 pm 
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A splendid, emotional distillation of pure Dickens

Douglas McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby is a ruthlessly simplified version of the novel that comes close to being a generic picture of what Dickens' world contains. One rebels at being rudely forced into this world at first, but then it becomes a compulsion to stay and see what happens as the great nineteenth-century writer pours out his intricate plots (still compulsive even when pruned down). The elements that remain from the cutting McGrath himself is credited with here are these: Innocence, followed closely by: Deep meanness. Soul-destroying greed. Sly shiftings of inheritance. The pathos and bathos of wrecked families and abandoned, suffering little innocents (Jamie Bell of 'Billy Elliott' is terrific in this movie as the pathetic young Smike). The excruciatingly long-delayed but finally satisfying punishment of wrongdoers. The patience of the morally upright. The cloying goodness. The sympathetic tears---and I dare you not to shed them at the end!

So much of the Dickensian picture so boldly presented in Nicholas Nickleby seems an unbearably manipulative version of life.

And yet so much that Dickens tells us is ultimately true, and a healthy corrective to the empty picture a contemporary world-view provides. Aren't most lives miserable, spent at best in 'quiet desperation' as Thoreau put it? Don't we merely avoid looking at this truth, which still applies to 'the mass of men,' considering how many of the inhabitants of this planet are hungry, poor, diseased, or with no prospects? Is evil constantly being subdued before us on the universal stage or is it ceaselessly threatening to triumph?

Today I heard reportage showing that there was a desert in Utah where enough biological poison is stored to kill all the population of earth ten or maybe 100 times over, and that there was a stockpile of nuclear weapons in North Dakota that makes that state the fourth most armed nuclear 'nation' in the world. Is that not evil? What about AIDS? Are Americans truly happy today? And isn't goodness finally what matters above all else?

Nicholas Nickleby's eventful and rather lurid plot puts one in a frame of mind to contemplate human misery and to long for the triumph of goodness.

Anyway, the last scene, at a graveyard, ending the story with death as it began, made me cry the rightful Dickensian tears.

And then as the credits rolled I realized that I'd seen a whole lot of wonderful acting. The standouts include Christopher Plummer, as Nicholas' tirelessly wicked and heartless uncle Ralph; James Broadbent, as the malevolent headmaster Wackford Squeers; Jamie Bell, as the aforementioned Smike-he uses all his talents as a dancer to produce a most captivating Dickensian limp, and his small, pinched face reveals sorrow and love with heartbreaking economy; Tom Courtenay (typically stoical and real) as Ralph's sad assistant Newman Noggs; Edward Fox as the sexually predatory aristocrat Sir Mulberry Hawk. And what about the young man at the heart of the story? Charlie Hunnam has been accused of blandness as Nicholas: indeed, he is guilty truly only of the crimes of sweetness, goodness, and stunning good looks. There are colorful characters rounded out in this cast that shows tons of old fashioned English depth. The crowd applauded the mere appearance of Mike Leigh veteran Timothy Spall: indeed, who couldn't smile to see his face? The ensemble, including notably also Nathan Lane, Alan Cumming, and Barry Humphries, all work cunningly together to make the 132 minutes go by like lightening.

The new Nicholas Nickleby is a terrific Dickens movie. After the contemplation of misery and innocence you walk out feeling awfully, awfully good.

January 5, 2003

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