Dir: Douglas McGrath. US. 2002. 130mins.

Having captured the spirit of Jane Austen with his 1996 debut Emma, American writer-director Douglas McGrath now delivers a warm and engaging, though necessarily breezy version of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby that features an enticing, mainly British ensemble cast. The cast has already won the National Board of Review's ensemble acting award and it will be the main selling point when the film gets its limited US opening on Dec 27.

However, US distributor United Artists will still have to work to secure an audience as the film goes up against some starrier, more weighty period piece competition. In the international marketplace the film will have more room to grow and should do solid - or better than solid if it gets additional awards recognition - upmarket business.

The sprawling, episodic structure of Dickens' evergreen third novel has been transferred to television several times over recent decades (most recently in a 2001 British mini-series), but this is the first big-screen version in more than 50 years. McGrath's most significant achievement is in streamlining the plot to focus on the trusting young Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam, from UK TV's Queer As Folk and forthcoming feature Cold Mountain) and his wealthy and apparently stone-hearted uncle, Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer).

The novel's major episodes, such as the destitute Nickleby family's move from the countryside to grimy Victorian London, Nicholas' banishment to the squalid Dotheboys Hall, his friendship with the mistreated Smike (Jamie Bell, from Billy Elliot) and his stint as an actor with the Crummles' theatrical troupe, are all preserved. However, the film's primary interest is in its hero's struggle to build and preserve a new, extended family in the face of his uncle's cruel machinations.

McGrath's treatment sacrifices a few of the novel's peripheral comic characters and some of the story's dramatic heft and it doesn't leave much room for character development. But it does manage to retain a good balance between comedy and melodrama and to draw a dramatic arc that is emotionally satisfying without being too sentimental.

The pace is inevitably brisk and occasionally the film seems to rush through scenes in its effort to keep to a two-hour-plus running time. The staging is relatively naturalistic, avoiding the excesses sometimes seen in TV versions of the story. Dotheboys Hall, for example, is convincingly depressing rather than gothically horrific and Smike is portrayed as a believable character rather than as a dribbling, deformed caricature.

Below the line talents include several regulars from producer Simon Channing Williams' films with Mike Leigh. Notably, director of photography Dick Pope and production designer Eve Stewart give the film a look that contrasts the grey of London and Dotheboys Hall with the airiness of the Yorkshire moors and the pastoral green of the Nickleby family's Devon home.

But what will get Nicholas Nickleby noticed, though, is its chocolate box assortment of acting turns. Some of the name performers have to make do with what are essentially cameos. Alan Cumming has fun as a particularly loopy member of the Crummles theatrical company and Barry Humphries does a variation on Dame Edna Everage as Mrs Crummles. Tom Courtenay, as Ralph Nickleby's long-suffering servant Newman Noggs, and Romola Garai (from I Capture the Castle), as Nicholas' sister Kate, get parts that have been cut down from the novel, and Edward Fox plays the composite character of Ralph Nickleby's lecherous acquaintance Sir Mulberry Hawk. Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson stand out as the funny/creepy proprietors of Dotheboys Hall, Wackford and Mrs Squeers, and Nathan Lane, the production's biggest US star, is deliciously funny as the campy Vincent Crummles.

Hunnam makes a strikingly handsome, if slightly bland Nicholas while Bell gives Smike a genuinely touching pathos. Plummer is terrific in the only really meaty role, managing, in the closing scenes, to elicit sympathy for the otherwise hateful Uncle Ralph. The cast certainly deserves kudos as an ensemble, but with so many performances vying for screen time the odds of the film snagging individual acting awards are probably long.

Prod cos: Hart Sharp Entertainment, Cloud Nine Films
US dist:
United Artists
Simon Channing Williams, John N Hart, Jeffrey Sharp
Exec prods:
Gail Egan, Robert Kessel, Michael Hogan
McGrath, based on the novel by Charles Dickens
Dick Pope
Prod des:
Eve Stewart
Lesley Walker
Rachel Portman
Main cast:
Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Alan Cumming, Edward Fox, Barry Humphries, Charlie Hunnam, Nathan Lane, Christopher Plummer, Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson