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Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Nicholas Nickleby and the Mystery of the Missing Mole
No Boxing Day holiday for me this year (last year we were in Canada, where Boxing Day seems to rival the big 2-5 for all-round mega-importance), but after work and a refreshing bowl of pho, courtesy of the Than Bros. (which, of course, also means some kick-ass coffee with condensed milk and a lovely cream bun), we were off to a free screening of Nicholas Nickleby.

Slate’s second-string critic wrote it off as “an after-school special in Victorian finery,” and he may be onto something, but I don’t think it was an intentional down-market tilt. There’s no way one cute boy, especially one forever branded as “the under-age boyfriend in the British Queer as Folk,” could induce scores of American teens to go see a movie where every other character is either grimy and scraggle-toothed or evil. Just as Rabbit-Proof Fence was saved by brilliant casting, Nicholas Nickleby was doomed by one bad hire. The problem is that Charlie Hunnam—the eponymous hero—can’t handle the lines.

I’m a Northerner myself, and I’ve suffered my share of accent-related slights, so I don’t think it’s a Northern thing—the poor lad was struggling manfully to flatten out his vowels, anyway—but he just couldn’t get the rhythm right. Dickens—especially in this script—isn’t Shakespeare, but the actors need to be in full control of their breath and at a minimum they have to be able to pronounce the words and at least seem to know what they mean. Except when he was shouting in righteous indignation, Charlie’s speeches were a confusing mess.

It’s a terrible shame, because the rest of the cast was excellent, with one mysterious exception: Barry Humphries in full Dame Edna Everage mode seems to be have been directed to swallow all her good lines; a funny joke about the aged male lead in a production of Romeo and Juliet was totally ruined by the virtual inaudibility of the punch line. Otherwise, though, Jamie Bell (you may know him from such pale imitations of Kes as Billy Elliot), Christopher Plummer (the silver fox was so hot he turned me on!), Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Tom Courtenay, Nathan Lane, and especially the great Timothy Spall were outstanding, but nevertheless, the movie was a bit fat nothing-burger. Not terrible, not embarrassing, but not very good. And all because the main lead—a handsome devil to be sure—can’t, you know, act.

One last thing: Nicholas Nickleby is supposed to be good and tall and handsome. Obviously Charlie Hunnam got the part because of his looks and his bod (the skimpy justification for a shirts-off scene at Dotheboys School wouldn’t even have passed muster on an Australian soap opera). Given all that, why did the U.S. distributors feel the need to airbrush out Charlie’s Enrique Iglesias mole? His mug’s on-screen for about 100 minutes, so I think the movie-makers must be OK with it, but check out the movie poster and the official Web site. A smooth, bump-free fizzog for the boy from Newcastle.