nicholas nickleby and much gushing over dickens

my love of dickens goes back to high school. in grade twelve we read the mystery of edwin drood, dickens’ last unfinished novel. our task was to write an ending to it. what a strenuous and rewarding task. how rich the language, how thick the social commentary. regardless of the predictability of a dickensian plot-curve, i cannot help but feel enveloped by his sense of narrative and his striking turn of the phrase. he is a social satirist without equal, and i readily admire his prose. take the opening of bleak house – there is nothing its equal. if you disregard dickens completely, at the very least read the first few paragraphs of this masterwork. you cannot deny the brilliance. i am a terribly cynical and sarcastic man, and i unabashedly adore dickens.

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

how can one not disappear, consumed by the wealth of detail and voracious quality of such writing? i always have the sense that great art should invoke in me a feel of hunger, and dickens does not fail to provoke such ravenousness.

the 2002 film version of nicholas nickleby manages to succeed at bringing to screen dickens’ thick and thoughtful prose. it captures the melodrama, while honing in on the nuances that mark dickens’ writing. jim broadbent (as wackford squeers) and christopher plummer (as ralph nickleby) inspire in us such loathing, such depraved insolence, that their performances are worthy of nothing less than standing applause. they play horrible men wonderfully.

charlie hunnam embraces the righteous and loving character of nicholas nickleby in a way that has us all yelling in moral indignation. and, perhaps most brilliantly of all, jamie bell shows us the agony of young smike, a boy bashed down by both disability and love. if bell’s performance does not make you feel, then you have no heart.

while the period pieces of m’lady jane austen make us pleasantly euphoric, the social satires of dearest dickens leave us somewhat weary and warmed by the success of his protagonists and the degradation (or death) of his evil capitalists and cruel imprisoners.

this is a wonderful film to press upon anyone (especially your children), and a great success by its director douglas mcgrath and multi-talented cast. equally importantly, you witness the annoyingly adorable alan cumming do a scottish dance, timothy spall as a tenderheart, and the irrepressible (who else can own that title?) nathan lane as himself.