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FIRST-PERSON: Dickens’ ‘Nickleby’ on film: fun & spiritually rewarding

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–Fear not that the new “Nicholas Nickleby” from United Artists is merely another English period piece about a mistreated kid. This version of the Charles Dickens classic is not only a spirited, uplifting drama, but also one of most delightful films of the year.

The story revolves around young Nicholas and his family, who have enjoyed a comfortable life. But when the father suddenly dies, the family is left penniless, and Nicholas, his sister and mother venture to London to seek help from their Uncle Ralph. Unfortunately, Ralph’s only intentions are to break up the family and profit off them, and Nicholas is sent to a school run by the cruel, abusive Wackford Squeers.

Eventually, Nicholas runs away with fellow schoolmate Smike, an abused orphan befriended by the stalwart and kind-hearted Nicholas. The two set off on an adventure to find and reunite the Nickleby family. And that’s where the delight begins. Nicholas and Smike come across, and soon join, a misfit troupe of wandering minstrels. Needing a job, Nick and Smike quickly find themselves neophyte actors performing the likes of Shakespeare, no less.

This band of eccentric thespians is headed by Nathan Lane (“Stuart Little,” “Mousehunt,” “The Lion King”), perhaps the funniest man since Jonathan Winters. Lane and the other troupe members furnish comic relief in order to help us digest the heavier material.

Fortified by a novel filled with insightful themes and deep emotion, director Douglas McGrath and his capable cast manage to move us on many levels as the characters deal with themes ranging from overcoming injustice to cherishing the blessing that is family.

I recently sat down with Doug McGrath and asked what drew him to this material. “There are two messages in this work that have always touched me,” McGrath said. “Dickens forthrightly asks the reader, ‘How do I battle evil without becoming evil?’ And secondly, ‘Man needs to belong to someone in order to find life’s most elusive treasure, happiness.'”

One scene in particular catches the depth of Dickens’ work. Smike, the castoff orphan who has finally found a compassionate friend in Nicholas, is asked by the protagonist, “Where is your home?” Smike replies, slowly, thoughtfully, “You are my home.” It is the most poignant moment I can remember in a film. With his compassion, Nicholas has touched a life — making a difference in that life. It is a profound example of Christ’s teaching to love one another.

While sometimes outrageous, the film’s actors never go overboard. Their creations are true to Dickens and most importantly, real. There’s no winking at the audience with a “Look at me, I’m doing Dickens.” They understand Dickens’ purpose, and deftly convey Dickensian themes.

However, as good as the cast is, this is the director’s baby. Douglas McGrath (co-writer of “Bullets Over Broadway” with Woody Allen and director of Gwyneth Paltrow in Jane Austin’s “Emma”) has taken charge from the first frame. His fully realized screenplay of the epic novel is streamlined to perfection, giving us relevant themes and energizing us with a stylish, quick-paced story.

Nathan Lane, who plays Vincent Crummles, says, “Doug has captured the language and humor of the novel. It’s a really masterful job.”

“Doug is almost from a different time where manners and a sense of courteousness and decorum actually matter,” producer Jeffrey Sharp adds. “He invests a sense of optimism into everything he does. That optimism is very apparent in his film.”

Although the production is certainly done from a secular perspective, the filmmakers are keenly aware of the significance of religion and propriety during the story’s era. Those seeking justice and mercy in the production forthrightly declare a faith in God and a reverence for him.

Joyous and spiritually moving, I found “Nicholas Nickleby” to be one of the best films of the year.

The film is rated PG. It shows a family going through financial struggles and the ill-treatment of boys in an orphanage; there is a death of a main character; and a suicide is recounted. But the film is not a downer. It uplifts with its lessons of hope in the face of adversity and faith in God’s will.
Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective. For more information about his service, go to www.moviereporter.com.

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  • Phil Boatwright