The genius of Charles Dickens lies in his wonderful shamelessness: evil is never so dreadful as it is in his novels, goodness never so pure, and every character is drawn with a relish that even today compels us to love or hate his people. "Nicholas Nickleby" is the story of a young man (played here by Charlie Hunnam), left destitute by his father's death - caused in no small part by his father's brother Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer in an Iago-like performance that will send shivers down anyone's spine).
Ralph sends Nicholas off to the Yorkshire moors, to be the assistant schoolmaster at a horrifying hell-hole run by the appalling Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his wife. Nicholas saves the young Smike (Jamie Bell, who played Billy Elliot), a crippled boy who is their slave, from torture and worse, and the two of them journey to Liverpool where they are taken in by a theatrical troupe headed by Mr. and Mrs. Crummles (Nathan Lane and Barry Humphries in his Dame Edna Everage persona). Meanwhile, back in London, evil Ralph has dreadful plans for Nicholas's sister Kate (Romola Garai). How Nicholas conspires with Ralph's clerk Noggs (Tom Courtenay) and the two wonderful Cheeryble brothers (Timothy Spall and Gerald Horan) to defeat Ralph, find a proper husband for Kate and a wife for Nicholas, is the burden of the rest of the film.
The acting, particularly by Plummer, Broadbent, Courtenay and Spall, is exquisite to watch. They take their roles to the limit but never to excess. Hunnam has the looks for Nicholas, and holds his own against the others - he is in almost every scene - but he does not have the charisma we might hope for.
The problem, and there is one, lies in Douglas McGrath's direction. The film progresses by fits and starts. Scenes are either held too long or cut away from too soon. Whenever we abandon ourselves to the story, the jerky motion keeps stopping us cold. And in trying for a true period feeling (no gas or electric light), McGrath has underlit all his interiors, graying them down to the point of invisibility. His camera placement is also questionable, somehow putting crucial actions and lines at too great a distance from us.
And yet, somehow, Dickens survives; more than that, he triumphs, as Nicholas triumphs over all his misfortunes. And that, really, is enough.