A Dickens of a good time

Nicholas Nickleby" belongs to a proudly old-fashioned tradition of movies inspired by Charles Dickens, the greatest English novelist of the 19th century.

The secret to enjoying these pictures is to realize that nothing can duplicate the glories of Dickens's sweeping plots, colorful characters, and mellifluous prose, so all screen adaptations are bound to be un-Dickensian from the get-go.

What makes some Dickens films stand above the others - David Lean's 1946 "Great Expectations," the 1951 "A Christmas Carol" - is a willingness to snag the most cinematic material from a given book, translate this into motion-picture terms, and not worry about abstract notions of fidelity to the text as a whole (see story, page 20).

"Nicholas Nickleby" does this nicely, using selected portions of the eponymous novel as grist for a series of episodes that occasionally fall short but are mostly great fun to watch.

The story centers on an upright young man who becomes the head of his newly impoverished family after his father's untimely death.

Leaving home on a quest for income and security, he encounters a long list of unexpected friends and foes, some of whom stand with Dickens's most popular creations - the sadistic schoolmaster Squeers, the good-natured drunkard Noggs, and the pitiable waif Smike among them.

British director Douglas McGrath orchestrates their activities into a lively symphony of events and emotions, helped by a mostly excellent cast. It's unfortunate that Charlie Hunnam is conspicuously weak as the all-important title character, but almost everyone else is excellent.

Jim Broadbent as the schoolmaster, Tom Courtenay as Noggs, and Christopher Plummer as Nicholas's evil uncle stand out. Also present are Anne Hathaway, Nathan Lane, Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson, and many more.

Despite a splendid start and numerous high points along the way, "Nickleby" eventually sinks into a recurring bad habit of Dickens movies, resolving the story in talky scenes that do too much telling and too little showing.

In other ways it's a lovely film for the holiday season, reminding us that the tried-and-true approach to Dickens still works better than tricked-up versions like the modern-day "Great Expectations" that sank like a stone a few years ago. Here's hoping similar efforts follow in "Nickleby's" wake.

Rated PG; contains moderate violence.

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