Timothy Spall compares distilling Nicholas Nickleby into two hours to "getting an ostrich into a thermos flask". Kudos then to writer/ helmer Douglas McGrath for condensing Charles Dickens' door-stopper with such flair and grace. Inevitably, there are compromises: the book's labyrinthine plot is made linear, the ending is too neat, and certain supporting characters are introduced only to disappear into thin air. But as Reader's Digest versions of the classics go, this is a lot classier than most - - it certainly beats the likes of Alfonso Cuarón's Great Expectations and the recent Christmas Carol cartoon in the fidelity stakes.
Excising much of the book's chaff to concentrate solely on Dickens' angelic if rather boring hero (Queer As Folk hunk Charlie Hunnam), McGrath constructs a lean, fast-moving fable where good triumphs over evil and the cruel and heartless get their just desserts. Purists may kvetch, but all the key episodes remain: Nicholas' reluctant placement as schoolteacher at the ghastly Dotheboys Hall under the despotic rule of cyclopic headmaster Squeers (Jim Broadbent); his subsequent flight with the abused, disabled Smike (Jamie Bell); his comical encounter with a troupe of travelling actors; and his return to London to rescue his sister Kate (Romola Garai) from the clutches of their mean old Uncle Ralph (a gloriously hissable Christopher Plummer).
As he did with Emma, McGrath assembles a quality cast of Brit thesps (the aforementioned Spall, Juliet Stevenson, Tom Courtenay, Edward Fox) to compensate for a colourless lead, and he bolsters their ranks with the odd Yank (Nathan Lane, Anne Hathaway) and some even odder cameos (Barry Humphries in drag, a kilted Alan Cumming). The result is reassuringly familiar yet unsatisfying: with an ensemble this fine, this is one film you wouldn't mind being a little longer. Still, it's good to see the Beeb doesn't have the monopoly on costume dramas.
This Nickleby-lite may be sentimental and a tad simplistic, but the stellar cast ensures Dickens' larger-than-life characters are well served and fruitily played.