If there were an award for most wasted talent, this film would take it. If Charles Dickens were around he'd turn thumbs down for wretched writing in so poor an effort to construct a drama based on his classic work. In Dickens there are many unredeemable characters. In this movie, the bad guy is writer-director Douglas McGrath. There's little in his adaptation that is redeemable.
In 19th century England, the Nickleby family was doing quite well on their country estate, reveling in family love, until Nicholas' father ups and dies. Because of his investment speculation, the family is left penniless and without means of support. 19 year old Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam), blond, handsome, and dedicated to the honor and destiny of his family, leads his mother and sister through the streets of London to the office of his wealthy uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer). He does so in hopes that Uncle will provide some sort of rescue plan. He has no idea of the treachery harbored within his very rich relative's breast.
Uncle Ralph promises employment positions but introduces his niece, Nicholas' sister Kate (Romola Garai), to his rich clients over a dinner where Sir Mulberry Hawk (Edward Fox), a character so exaggerated as to be cartoonish, attempts to seduce her. The thought is preposterous but that doesn't prevent this being presented here as a real threat. Uncle Ralph is in perfect accord with this outrageous behavior seeing it as a way to promote Hawk's continued investments in his firm and ensuring the income he derives from him.
Uncle Ralph places young Nicholas with vile Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his viler wife (Juliet Stevenson) as a school master in their decrepit academy for an unhappy lot of boys whom they routinely abuse with cruel punishments. For some reason not evident in the movie, Nicholas adopts the crippled Smike (Jamie Bell) as a protector. Beyond the fact that he is a recipient of the Squeers wrath at times, Smike is not particularly likeable and doesn't earn enough sympathy to explain this attachment unless there is an unstated homosexual magnetism at work in this oddball relationship. Not worth mentioning except that it becomes a major story line and is a contributant to sinking this movie in a morass of inadequate, if not mystifying motivations.
We get back on track with Nicholas when he becomes heterosexually enamored of Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway). At last we can understand his attraction and his motivations in winning her against the wishes of a father who is both dying and opportunistic. To do this he has to foil his Uncle who has deviously arranged for a lucrative and innapropriate betrothal contract for the lady. In this, as in all things, Nicholas is the picture of good, behaving according to the dictates of his good upbringing and honor.
Charlie Hunnam is a Heath Ledger look-alike, which is not all bad. His beguiling male beauty and over-trusting charm affords the picture what claim it may have on attracting an audience of non-Dickensians. The rest of the cast is earnestly dedicated to their roles as drawn and overdrawn. You can't fault them for overstatement and one-dimensional weakness in the script.
It's entirely probable that those who love Dickens and who are familiar with his novel will be able to fill in the gaps in character and motivation that are missing here. It's also true that Dicken's exaggerations of character work well in the context of his novels and in his time. But this is a feature that doesn't transfer well to a modern rendering of the subject matter, however classic. In pure movie terms, which is the only way in which a 2002 movie can or should be considered, this one fails on many counts, deriving mostly from a script that relies too heavily on the stereotype and a director who lacked the taste and vision to present it in a less simplistic package.