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2003 Milk Plus Droogies

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Kill Bill Vol. I

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Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

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Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

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Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

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Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

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David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

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Miranda Richardson, Spider

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Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

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Irreversible

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Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Sunday, September 14, 2003
 

Nicholas Nickleby (2002)


is the seventh adaption of Dickens' novel, including two silent versions and a couple of television mini-series, one of which is nine hours long, which seems excessive. I saw a number of trailers for the movie, thought it looked promising, and waited and waited for it to come, but it never did, alas. I'm not sure it ever got a wide distribution, which is a shame because it really deserved to be seen on a big screen.

The story falls basically into five acts.

Act I: When Nicholas's father dies, 19 year-old Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam), his sister Kate (Romola Garai), and their mother (Stella Gonet) are destitute and forced to leave their home (They are unable to sell their home, which apparently is able to maintain itself in their absence.) They travel to London, where they seek assistance from Nicholas's uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer), who has made a great deal of money from speculation. One of the speculations which went bust wiped out Nicholas' father and led to his death. Uncle Ralph responds by finding Nicholas a job with the vile schoolmaster Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and promising that he will look out for Kate and her mother. The nature of Ralph's "help", which involves, among other things, humiliating Kate to promote his speculations, establishes him as one of Dickens' eviler villains.

Act II finds Nickleby at Squeer's school, named Dotheboys, which suggests even worse goings on than what's actually going on. We are treated to a shot of the boys sleeping in crates with straw for their mattresses; they resemble a row of corpses in open coffins. Squeers is a sadistic schoolmaster and incompetent teacher. His wife (Juliet Stevenson) is even more vicious and has no redeeming characteristics at all. The romantic exchanges between the Squeers make me think that their sexual encounters must involve inventive use of props. Nicholas, who is desperate for the job, plays along with Squeers and manages some actual teaching, including teaching the boys French, presumably so they'll be able to speak one language fluently after Squeers gets done teaching them English. The students are kept healthy by meals of brimstone and treacle.

Also at the school is a boy named Smike, who used to be a student until the money ran out, then became an all-purpose slave laborer and whipping boy for the Squeers. Nickleby sympathizes with Smike, who is clearly in bad health, pathetically eager to please, and has such a large collection of Dodger tickets that I kept asking, "Is Smike going to die soon? Please? Pretty please?"

This section of the movie really didn't work for me. Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson are so over the top, her performance is so one-note, Nicholas is so good and noble, and Smike is so pathetic, that they all become caricatures. This section of the book had great impact in Dickens' time but that time is long past.

Act III: Anyway, after Nickleby's conscience is sufficiently tormented, he flees with Smike, and they encounter and join a group of travelling players, led by the Crummles, played by Nathan Lane and Dame Edna Everage (Barry Humphries), and containing Mr Folair (Alan Cummings, who really, really wants to demonstrate the Highland Fling), Mr. Leadville (Barry Humphries again), and the Infant Phenomenon (Eileen Walsh) who has been ten for eight years at least and is perpetually plastered. This section of the movie is delightful, with Lane and Everage chewing the scenery, but since they are playing troupers, this is perfectly appropriate and a wonder to see. Also a wonder to see is the background to the stage, which is perfectly hideous. Anyway, Nicholas and Smike join them and the other troupers, with Smike beginning a new career as the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet.

Act IV: Alas, the troupe section is all too short, and Nicholas receives a message about the problems his mother and sister are having with Uncle Ralph and his friend, so he and Smike go to London to set things straight and stand up for his sister's honor. (Mailing her a few hatpins would have been a good start.) Nicholas has problems finding a job, but in the process meets Madeline Bray, who also is in a bad situation and looks just like a very beautiful Anne Hathaway, so she appeals both to the eye and his do-gooder instincts. Nicholas is instantly smitten, and I don't blame him. Madeline, alas, is bound by family duty to her tyrannical father, who is bound by debt to Nicholas' Uncle Ralph. (Nicholas actually met her earlier at his Uncle's, but I didn't remember that when I was watching the movie.)

However, while waiting outside the office where Madeline is looking for work, Nicholas meets Charles Cheeryble, who takes a liking to him and wants to offer him a job. Charles takes him home to meet his twin brother, Ned Cheeryble, who also likes Nicholas. The Cheerybles are rich and determined to set the world aright, and recognize a kindred spirit. Charles and Ned Cheeryble are played by Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan, who are having the time of their lives here. I had a silly grin every time they appeared.

(If you didn't know this was Dickens going in, the names Wackford Squeers, Smike and Cheeryble would have clued you in pretty quickly. There's also a Newman Nobbs.)

Anyway, evil Uncle Ralph, who has taken an intense hatred to Nicholas, decides to destroy Nicholas's happiness. (You can't blame Ralph in a way: Nicholas has mistreated the lovely Squeers, insulted Ralph's business partners over an affair of honor, associated with Cheerybles and has brought Smike to London--God knows what Nicholas will bring back next time. The man's a hopeless do-gooder and probably a liberal, dang it, what's a villain to do?) Ralph arranges for Squeers to kidnap Smike (Nicholas promptly frees him), then, discovering Madeline and Nicholas have fallen in love, arranges a marriage between Madeline and a particularly vile business partner, in exchange for writing off Madeline's father's debts. Ralph's butler, Newman Nobbs, who likes Nicholas and owes Nicholas's father a debt, sends word to Nicholas about these shenanigans, which Nick foils, with the help of an improbably timely death.

It never occurs to Nicholas that with all this misery in London, that he might inquire whether Madeline, Kate and his mother might consider the acting profession. After all, he and Smike are welcome back to the troupe anytime.

In the midst of this, Smike gets sicker, and is sent to the old Nickleby estate for his health, so he promptly cashes in his Artful Dodgers tickets. Maybe he would have been better off with Squeers after all, where he could have lived a long life as a hopeless wretch.

Well, Uncle Ralph has been spending two hours of our time engaging in numerous vile plots, doing his worst to Nicholas, Kate, and Smike, and it's time for his comeuppance. Thus:

MAJOR SPOILERS AN IMPROBABLE COINCIDENCES AHEAD: it's time for the speculator to lose his big gamble. While engaged unsuccessfully in tormenting Nicholas and company, Ralph has uncharacteristically neglected his business, and a 10,000 pound speculation has collapsed while he wasn't paying attention. Ralph is ruined. Worse, he is trapped in Dickensian plotting! For, you see, Nicholas, Nobbs, and the Cheerybles have put together the darkest secret of Ralph Nickleby's life, one so dark Ralph doesn't even know about it!

You see, it turns out that Ralph was once married to a woman, but couldn't reveal the marriage because she would have been disinherited. She had a child, whose existence had to be kept secret since the marriage was secret, and she died young. The child was hidden away in an attic, where he became sickly, and was sent off secretly to Dotheboys without Ralph's knowledge, because if he had been informed, then we wouldn't be having the big confrontation scene. Ralph thinks his son died, and of course he's right, but only off by fourteen years on the date of his death.

Confronted by the realization that he himself is responsible for bringing Smike into the world, Ralph has no choice but to end it all before he can reproduce again.

Act V, verily the epilog. We are back to to Nickleby estate, where Nicholas and Madeline are getting married, and Kate is marrying a minor character. Nathan Lane gets to give a beautiful speech. (I think he's been the narrator all along; the speech answers a question from the opening monologue.) Nicholas and Madeline run off to visit the graves of Nicholas's father and Smike, who of course is Nicholas's cousin. They resolve to spend time at the graves every day, presumably picnicking above the bones of their relatives.

Summary:
Nicholas Nickleby is very strong in its supporting characters, although as mentioned I had problems with Broadbent and Stevenson. Nathan Lane, Barry Humphries, Alan Cummings, Timothy Spall, Gerard Horan, Tom Courtenay and Anne Hathaway are all major reasons to see the movie. Christopher Plummer makes a good villain. Uncle Ralph makes you appreciate the common decency and lovableness of Ebernezer Scrooge. Scrooge, after all was a miser and misanthrope, but did a spark of humanity that could be brought out by shock treatment.

A weakness is in other Nicklebys, Charles Hunnam and Romola Gorai are pretty, but their characters are bland, close to caricatures of goodness. Nicholas's mother is a cipher. The Squeers didn't work for me. Juliet Stevenson in particular reminded me of Mrs. Tweedy from Chicken Run. And the climax was one of those outrageous moments that had me saying "Oh, COME ON now."

So, a mixed review of a movie with great weaknesses and a lot of strong points.