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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY

Every Good Boy Does Fine

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You can cheer for Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) -- with his flaxen hair, pallid (i.e. English) skin, charismatic smile and angelic heart -- who becomes the man of his family at 19 when his father dies penniless. You can hiss when his Uncle (a grandly malevolent Christopher Plummer) connives to ruin Nick's life, or when the aptly named Hawk (Edward Fox) tries to spoil Nick's virtuous sister. (Nobody, by the way, actually calls him Nick.)

And laugh -- please, laugh! -- at Noggs (Tom Courtenay), Uncle's drolly caustic manservant, or at Cheeryble (Timothy Spall), a corpulent chap who, with his almost-twin brother, are the story's munificent Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

When Nicholas whips the merciless, one-eyed Squeers (Jim Broadbent, juicily vulgar), then flees the boarding house with Smike (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot) -- the desperately lovable crippled boy with the indomitable spirit -- the two become Huck and Tom on a picaresque journey to eschew the "civilized" world. It's no wonder they meet up with the King and the Duke -- that is, an impresario (Lane) and his sidekick (Alan Cumming) of many disguises, none of them any good. But soon it's back to family crises in London, where Nicholas fends off a few more schemes to destroy him before winning the girl, along with the hearts of everyone.

Determined to make an accessible movie of a mammoth tome, McGrath (Emma) cherry-picks his narrative, not always smoothly, but usually smoothly enough. His movie has a blithe "all the world's a stage" quality, and to make sure we don't miss the stuff he jettisoned, he hired a sterling cast to perform what's left. Hunnam, from British TV's Queer As Folk, is skillfully charming as the noble (and, therefore, a tad bland) Nicholas. And young Jamie Bell, with his resolute scowl, is so out-of-this-world good as the cherubic Smike that it scares me to think he's still only 16 years old. * * *

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