Poverty, destitution, death, physical cruelty but also kindness, a great secret and happiness, this movie has them all. Set in the early Victorian era, the story follows the fate of young Nicholas Nickleby and his family after the death of his father. Left destitute, the Nickleby family turns to Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’s uncle, for help. The many adventures that follow, as they are aptly called, deal mainly with the efforts young Nicholas, nineteen years old at the time, makes in trying to provide for his mother and his sister, Kate.
Ralph Nickleby is the rich uncle who appears to make some effort in helping the poor family. In him Dickens has created a perfect example of the lonely, cold hearted man whose only goal in life is money, the only power he accepts and understands. His offers to help both Nicholas and Kate end badly.
Through his connections, Nicholas is offered a position as a tutor at a school for boys in Yorkshire, a place he soon comes to see for what it truly was: a sort of prison for small boys whose relatives send them there to be educated and, in the case of young Smike, abandons them. Soon, Nicholas leaves the place, taking Smike with him and the two become good friends. Smike’s mysterious past comes into focus when a strange man comes asking after him at the boy’s school after he has left it. The man makes a few appearances here and there – he reminded me of Magwitch, a similar character in Great Expectations, and in the end it is him who reveals Ralph’s secret and sheds light on Smike’s past.
The whole atmosphere of the movie was very well created. The poverty-stricken population, the wealth of the noblemen, the cruelty of both poor and rich, the kind-hearted people – I was captivated by the story and for a little over three hours I was totally immersed in the lives of the characters. Charles Dance was very convincing in the role of the ruthless uncle, and young Nicholas played by James D’Arcy (who had several roles in Cloud Atlas) brought to the screen a believable fresh-faced innocence combined with the rashness and passion of youth. I haven’t read the book so I can’t make any comparison but if the movie is any indication, it probably is a masterpiece.
Here’s the movie (2 parts), if you want to watch it: