One of my greatest nights of theater – actually an afternoon and a night, divided by a dinner break – came in 1982 when, as the theater critic for the Kansas City Star, I occupied a seat in Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s  monumental production of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby .
It was an awesome event that introduced me not only to the story (I’d never read the novel) but to some knockout stagecraft.
Interestingly enough, Kansas City Repertory Theatre  (then known as Missouri Rep) became only the second American company to attempt the huge undertaking when it staged the play a year later. It helped that the Rep could draw on unpaid students from the UMKC acting program to flesh out the humongous cast (even with most actors playing three or four roles, the show required thirty of them).
I mention all this because the stage version of Nick-Nick (as theater insiders like to call it) ran for a whopping eight hours and I came away from it believing that to do Dickens justice, any play or movie based on his work would have to be of posterior-numbing length.
Then along came 2002’s film version of Nicholas Nickleby  to prove me wrong.
Enacted by a British cast but directed by an American – Douglas McGrath , (who’s actually a Texan) – the film is of manageable length (2 hours 22 minutes) but somehow captures just about everything important in the tale: rich characters, compelling and complex storytelling, and a deep fascination with the human condition.
When his father dies, young Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam ) becomes the head of his tiny family. Faced with debts and no prospects, he, his mother and sister Kate (Romola Garai ) throw themselves on the mercy of their London relation, Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer ), a brusque stock market schemer who makes Scrooge look like Albert Schweitzer .
Nicholas is shipped off to the countryside to become a teacher in a boys' boarding school operated by the Squeerses (Jim Broadbent , Juliet Stevenson ), a perfect pair of funny/scary Dickensian villains who coo romantic goo to each other when they're not making life hell for their young "students."
Nicholas befriends the crippled, feeble-minded houseboy, Smike (Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell ); together they flee the Squeerses for a life on the road.
There, in the film's most gratifying segment, they join up with a crew of traveling players performing Shakespeare for slack-jawed yokels. The casting of this segment is particularly wonderful: Nathan Lane  as the puffed-up impresario, female impersonator Dame Edna Everage  (aka Barry Humphries) as his doting wife, and Alan Cumming  as a peculiarly affected thesp who lives to perform his exhibitionistic highland fling.
This being Dickens, all ends well, with the virtuous recognized and the evil receiving their comeuppance, but not before we get lots of laughs, unexpected acts of charity, a major hankie moment and a last-minute plot twist that gives the tale special resonance.
Hunnam, who plays the film’s virtuous title character, is best known nowadays as Jax Teller, the bearded biker-gang hunk on the cable show Sons of Anarchy  (or, as it’s known in our household, Hamlet on Harleys).
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the filmed Nickleby is that it so succinctly approximates the pleasure of reading Dickens.
Can’t beat that.
Other films in the series “Not Just for Christmas: Charles Dickens at 200”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- February 6: Nicholas Nickleby  (2002) Rated PG
- February 13: A Tale of Two Cities  (1935) Not Rated
- February 20: David Copperfield  (1935) Not Rated
- February 27: Great Expectations  (1946) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler  is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com . He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.