Like the Dickens novel on which it's based, director Douglas McGrath's "Nicholas Nickleby" overcomes the earnest blandness of its eponymous hero with wonderful side characters. First and foremost is the invaluable Nathan Lane doing double duty as the story's narrator and as theater impresario Vincent Crummles, who befriends Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam) on his flight from an evil school, Dotheboys Hall. Accompanying Lane gloriously is Barry Humphries, who plays Mrs. Crummles in his persona as Dame Edna without a suggestion of mockery, confirming the suspicion that sometimes straying from the obvious is the best idea.
Having recently lost his father, Nicholas and his sister and mother have been forced to throw themselves on the mercy of Nicholas Sr.'s brother, a usurious businessman, Ralph (a terrific Christopher Plummer). Ralph had found employment for his nephew at the school, but Nicholas, appalled at the, well, Dickensian horror of the place, has left, accompanied by the pitiful Smike (Jamie Bell), an orphan whose adoration of his handsome friend borders on the, well, erotic. Nicolas and Smike join Crummleses' theater company for about two seconds before traveling on to London for the inevitable showdown with Ralph.
McGrath, who adapted the novel, manages to catch the flavor of it without its tang. It would be hard to do otherwise, given the length of the book, which teems with enough characters, subplots and discursive descriptions to fill hours of a television miniseries. Still, although he's had to contend with an embarrassment of narrative riches, McGrath primarily suffers from a malady that can affect filmmakers who take on classics. He's not irreverent enough. He gives us Dame Edna, Tom Courtenay, Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson and Alan Cumming (in a kilt!) but, like Smike, he can't keep his eyes off Nicholas.