Would that there were more people in this world like Nicholas Nickleby - a champion of the underdog, a protector of his family, an opponent of evil. This film resonates in today’s world, and should be seen by high school students around the world.
Charlie Hunnam - Wikimedia
Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) came from a fine family, but when he was 19 years old, his father died, leaving his mother (Stella Gonet), Nicholas, and his sister Kate without any means of support. Without any forewarning to his family, the elder Nickleby lost all of their savings through bad investments. Later events may have the viewer’s suspicion aroused as to who might have been responsible for the elder Mr. Nickleby’s misfortune.
The Nicklebys do, however, have their uncle, Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer), to rescue them. So the trio travels to London to seek his help. Ralph is a shrewd investor with many connections, and is able to have young Nicholas placed as a tutor at Dotheboy’s Boarding School, and obtains for Kate a job as a seamstress.
Jim Broadbent - Wikimedia
Dotheboy’s Boarding School
The headmaster at Dotheboy’s is an ominous character named Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent), who lives up to the adjective “Dickensian,” given the injustice that pervades the squalid atmosphere in which he rules. Mr. Squeers and his wife (Juliet Stephenson) are the epitome of cruel child abusers. It is difficult to determine which one is more heartless. Some scenes are difficult to watch as a poor, defenseless child is beaten with a stick or kicked relentlessly. Nicholas stands up to the pair which gives them good reason to dislike him.
Nicholas and Smike Escape
Nicholas became friends with one of the older boys, Smike (Jamie Bell), a crippled young man who is forced to do hard work at the school because he is an orphan with no one to pay his admission fees. When Nicholas asked Smike one day where his home is, Smike answers “You are my home.” Nicholas is enraged at the conditions in the school, and plans to escape the clutches of the Squeers. Smike wants to go with him, so the two set off for London to be reunited with Nicholas’ mother and sister.
On their walk to London, they came upon a troupe of actors practicing Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The couple in charge of the troupe are Mr. and Mrs. Crummles (Nathan Lane and Barry Humphries, also known as Dame Edna Everage) who have just learned that the leading man has been injured and cannot continue in the part of Romeo. Mr. Crummles coerces Nicholas to rehearse for the part, and even has a role for Smike, as the apothecary. Another prominent member of the troupe is actor Alan Cumming, best known for his role as the Emcee in “Cabaret” for which he won a Tony. He seemed to enjoy this cameo role immensely.
Christopher Plummer - Wikimedia
A Letter from Noggs
The play “Romeo and Juliet” is a big success on its first night, but Nicholas has received a letter from Uncle Ralph’s valet, Newman Noggs (Tom Courtenay), telling him that his sister Kate (Romola Garai) is distraught over attentions being paid to her by uncle Ralph’s male friends. Noggs has never approved of Ralph Nickleby’s actions and tries to aid the victims when he becomes aware of it. Ralph had assured Nicholas that he would take great care of his mother and sister. Nicholas and Smike decide they must leave the production and continue on to London. The Crummles beg them to stay, but they feel bound to resume their journey. Besides, the original Romeo has recovered substantially and is able to return to the cast.
Mrs. Nickleby and Kate are happy that Nicholas has returned, and they welcome Smike into their midst also. After two attempts to find employment, Nicholas is offered a job as a clerk by the Cheeryble brothers, who offer him a salary larger than anything he had ever known.
Nicholas Defends Kate’s Virtue
Nicholas learned from Kate that, in the presence of Uncle Ralph, she has been given unwanted attention by Sir Mulberry Hawk, a business client of her uncle. Unknown to Kate, Uncle Ralph has encouraged this behavior by Hawk, thinking that a marriage to the beautiful Kate would enhance his financial prospects with Hawk. Nicholas confronts Hawk, and they exchange fisticuffs. Nicholas warns Hawk never to go near his sister again. Uncle Ralph’s hatred of Nicholas prompts him to state that he will destroy the boy. A short time later, Kate was introduced to young Frank Cheeryble (Willian Ash), the nephew of the kindhearted Cheeryble brothers, and the two were attracted to each other.
Anne Hathaway - Wikimedia
Nicholas Falls in Love
Also through the Cheeryble brothers, Nicholas met the beautiful Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway), and fell in love with her immediately. One of the brothers, Charles, confessed to Nicholas that he had loved Madeline’s mother when he was a young man, but she married another man. Madeline is a talented artist, who supports herself as well as her father, a tyrant and a gambler, who whittled away his own fortune and that of his wealthy wife. The Cheeryble brothers proposed to Nicholas that they wanted him to act as her agent in selling her paintings. He visited Madeline and met her father also. In choosing a painting for himself that he liked, Mr. Bray demanded that he pay for it immediately.
When Uncle Ralph learned that Nicholas was courting Madeline, he told her father that his debts to Ralph would be forgiven if he would allow Madeline to wed Sir Mulberry Hawk. The wedding plans were underway against Madeline’s wishes. However, Mr. Bray died unexpectedly before the wedding day arrived, to everyone’s relief. Madeline revealed to Nicholas that she loved him, stating “Every good thing has been a trick, until you.”
Smike was having his own problems at this time. An attempt was made to kidnap Smike and return him to Squeers. Again, Uncle Ralph was behind this act, in another attempt to thwart his major nemesis. Smike took a severe beating from Squeers before he was rescued by Nicholas. Kate took care of Smike during his recuperation, at which time he fell in love with her.
Jamie Bell - Wikimedia
No Spoiler Here
It would not be fair to reveal the ending which brought closure to several issues. It is enough to say that Christopher Plummer is not usually cast as a villain, but he was excellent in this role. I do not think it would be a spoiler to mention that Nicholas and Madeline married, and Kate and Frank Cheeryble also married.
It is my understanding that the novel, at 952 pages, had several episodic events which were not part of the plot in this screen version. I do believe, however, that this film would make an excellent introduction to young adults, even children in their early teens, to accustom them to the great classics, of which “Nicholas Nickleby” is one.