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Stock character: Christopher Plummer in Nicholas Nickleby.

Dashed Expectations

By Ann Morrow

Nicholas Nickleby
Directed by Douglas McGrath

A whirlwind tour through Charles Dickens’ stuffed-to-bursting 800-page novel, the latest Nicholas Nickleby plays like a CliffsNotes version, albeit an especially gorgeous one. In it, the young Nicklebys are plunged into poverty by the death of their father, appeal to their wealthy uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer) for aid, and are betrayed by the investor’s dastardly self-interest. Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam), a genteel young man of 19, takes a position in a Yorkshire boys school, where he encounters exploitation so grim that it defines the term “Dickensian.” Meanwhile, his beautiful sister, Kate, is left to the machinations of viperish Uncle Ralph and his less-than-gentlemanly associates. With assistance from unexpected places, Nicholas comes to the rescue, finding true love and a rewarding career along the way. As written and directed by Douglas McGrath, this breathlessly shallow adaptation sweeps past the author’s indictments of the crushing mercantilism of his age to revel in the story’s melodrama.

McGrath, whose charming version of Emma was carried by a note-perfect Gwyneth Paltrow and a stellar supporting cast, attempts a similarly breezy outing for Nicholas. But British hunk Charlie Hunnam is bland and unbelievable as the honorable but hotheaded young hero, and his artfully tousled blond hair is the least of his problems. He is not dashing, despite a frock coat that appears to have been tailored by Gaultier, and he does not come off as dangerously impetuous, despite the sound thrashing he applies to the sadistic schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent, sporting an unnecessarily scarred eye socket). Nor does Hunnam have the requisite diction for the dialogue, which has been adapted with a preference for the novel’s fustiest turns of phrase. In contrast to the superficially faithful screenplay, the imaginative production is not only enchanting but also shrewd, with Ralph’s intimidating office (complete with a collection of stuffed songbirds) providing the kind of psychological detail the script could use more of.

The heart of the novel, Nicholas’ protective relationship with the abused servant Smike (Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell), is relatively pathos-free: There doesn’t seem to be much wrong with Smike that couldn’t be cured by Dr. Scholls, and his dependence on Nicholas is romantically tailored to appeal to Hunnam’s fan base from Queer as Folk. The magnificent Juliet Stevenson as Mrs. Squeers builds up a scary head of sadistic steam that goes for naught, while the ruined nobility of Newman Noggs (Tom Courtenay), Ralph’s benevolently scheming clerk, is played for simpleminded laughs. Nathan Lane, perfectly cast as the theatrical impresario Crummles, manages to put some comedic oomph into the film’s lackluster drollery, but the canniest bit comes from Kevin McKidd, who turns Farmer Browdie’s Yorkshire accent into a source of all-too-brief amusement. A daring director would’ve cast McKidd (who segued from the hapless jock in Trainspotting to a surprisingly fine Count Vronsky in the recent UK miniseries of Anna Karenina) as Nicholas.

But where McGrath really misses the boat is with Ralph. One of Dickens’ most morally complicated and fascinating characters, this precursor to the Enron executives of today has never been more presciently relevant, yet he’s interpreted as a stock figure of gothic evil, with Plummer’s nearly Shakespearean performance only underscoring how much social nuance the breakneck plotting passes over.

Darkness, Darkness

Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

After consulting with a comic-aficionado—it would be impolite to use the term “geek”—I learned that Daredevil is considered a minor but interesting character in the Marvel comics pantheon of superheroes. As movie superheroes go, however, the character is unusually interesting, and the resulting film, also called Daredevil, is pretty good.

Think of Daredevil as Batman redux, with less of the latter’s nihilism. Daredevil doubles as a crusading lawyer by day, and fearless, acrobatic, roof-jumping superhero by night. The hook is that he’s blind—although the same toxic waste that blinded him also heightened his other senses, thus giving him his powers. (If only toxic waste had such useful side effects in the real world.) Like Batman, Daredevil lost his father to ruthless criminals; also like the Dark Knight, Daredevil can’t keep a girlfriend. Since Daredevil is a Marvel character born of the ’60s, this is all grounded in teen angst, though certainly not on the level of, say, Spider-man.

The plot isn’t anything new: Superhero meets girl; superhero is unjustly blamed for killing girl’s father; superhero wins girl back. Where Daredevil succeeds is in its dark tone. Unlike the film Spider-man, in this film, no character is safe from the reaper.

Since Daredevil’s superhero powers are based on his hyperheightened senses, it makes sense that the bulk of the special-effects wizardry would be marshaled to take the audience inside his skin. Every sound and vibration within a considerable distance hits him with a concussive force that is made visual with flashing effects, and aural with a complex—and loud—soundtrack. Even if the filmmakers go a bit over the top with this in some scenes, it still works. This is one superhero whose physical suffering is equal to his emotional baggage, and it makes him dark and interesting.

Ben Affleck underplays in both guises. Partly, this is because he doesn’t seem to know what else to do. (Can anyone other than Kevin Smith get an interesting performance out of him?) But Affleck’s unmodulated performance works because there is so little difference between the lawyer and the crimefighter. (Plus, it helps that Colin Farrell gives an amusingly eye-rolling performance as the villain, Bullseye.) This is another uncharacteristic contrast with most guys who don a suit to battle evildoers; Lois Lane may have been stunned to learn that Clark was the Man of Steel, but when Elektra (Jennifer Garner), Daredevil’s chick, pops off his red cowl, the shock is considerably less.

Still, Affleck is perfectly adequate casting, just as Tobey McGuire was the ideal Spider-man, because they are simply normal-
looking guys. It’s a relief to know that the days of human cartoons—like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger—portraying cinematic cartoons are over.

—Shawn Stone

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