The usually benevolent Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson are perfectly sadistic as Mr. and Mrs. Squeers, teachers and torturers at the disturbingly named Dotheboys Hall. Young Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam) is dispatched to teach at the foul school after his father (Andrew Havill) dies, sending him, his mother (Stella Gonet) and his sister, Kate (Romola Garai), to London to beg career assistance from his tight-fisted uncle, Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer). Miraculously, McGrath (who last directed Emma) tidies up Dickens' copious subplots without losing the novel's essence.
About the only problem with this Nicholas -- the book's first cinematic adaptation was in 1903 -- is that its lead is a pretty-boy liability. Posturing instead of acting, ditzy Hunnam (of Queer as Folk and Abandon) appears to be an extra who accidentally hit the jackpot. He stands on his marks, sports a foppish cravat and says the words in the right order, but otherwise he's a black hole in the middle of the otherwise impressive movie, a wooden Nickleby. Is it too late to replace him digitally?
Apart from casting slummy Hunnam (who makes Cider House-era Tobey Maguire seem like Olivier), though, McGrath has a strong handle on Nicholas. Take, for example, the flight of the hero with Dotheboys refugee Smike to Liverpool, where they join a troupe of zany actors that includes Alan Cumming, Eileen Walsh, Barry Humphries and his alter ego, Dame Edna (both queasy), all under the leadership of Nathan Lane. A lesser director would have lost his way in the spectacle; McGrath reveals the glory of theatre -- one of Dickens' true loves -- and hits a truly moving note before economically shuttling us along.
The other performers are splendid. Plummer steals every frame he's in, and Broadbent is a blast. Edward Fox turns up as what appears to be craggy, present-day Bob Dylan (but isn't). As Ralph's assistant, Newman Noggs, Tom Courtenay (a legend from Billy Liar onward) strikes chords of dignity and identity as vital as the main story, and Timothy Spall (All or Nothing), Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) and British television star Gerard Horan round out a fine ensemble cast.
In terms of design and execution, this Nicholas is a beaut. Nicholas Nickleby was published in 1839, but McGrath and production designer Eve Stewart have pushed the story into the 1850s to capture the contrasts of the Industrial Revolution. The revision works wonders, enhancing the cultural and economic subtexts and bringing richer meaning to the story's morals. One imagines the author would approve.