Charles Dickens’s third full-fledged novel once occasioned a Royal Shakespeare Company production that ran nine and a half hours long, owing not to any labyrinthine plotting but fidelity to its spiraling digressions and gang-press of broad comic cameos. Pared and shaped into middle Victorian heritage drama by Emma director Douglas McGrath, Nicholas Nickleby is revealed, not inaccurately, as the straightforward morality tale of a good boy’s triumph over evil, a quest aided by good people and thwarted by evil people.
When his father dies broke, Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) and family seek the help of rich, dastardly Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer, whose baleful stare stirs happy memories of his Snakeman in 1984’s Dreamscape). Eager to pimp comely sister Kate (Romola Garai, dewdropped and trembling) to a wizened buddy (Edward Fox), Ralph farms out Saint Nick to teach at a horrendous “school” for discarded boys run by the whip-cracking Squeerses (Juliet Stevenson and a one-eyed Jim Broadbent), where he mentors disabled, consumptive Smike (understated Jamie Bell, thankfully closer to Jenny Wren than Tiny Tim on the Dickens cripple continuum). The pair escape Titicut Follies for a traveling burlesque revue (cue overworked camp counselors Nathan Lane and Alan Cumming), a pointless prelude to a red-carpet procession of honors defended, fortunes destroyed, paternities revealed, and marriages arranged. The entire unwieldy contraption rests on the shoulders of erstwhile Queer as Folk jailbait Hunnam: Bleached and bland, earnest and wooden, he’s exactly what the film asks him to be.