There once lived, in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire…
- Charles Dickens, the first line of Nicholas Nickleby
From one of Charles Dickens' most masterful novels come some of his most unforgettable characters, vibrantly and movingly brought to life by a star-studded, award-winning cast.
In Nicholas Nickleby, when his father dies, young Nicholas' family is left penniless, and he, his sister, and his mother venture to London to seek help from their wealthy Uncle Ralph. Unfortunately, Ralph's intentions are less than beneficent, and the family is split apart. Nicholas is sent to teach at Dotheboys Hall, a squalid school for orphan boys run by the cruel and abusive Wackford Squeers. Within the dark, grim walls of Dotheboys, Nicholas befriends a kindhearted and mistreated boy named Smike, and together they run away, setting off on an adventure to reunite the Nickleby family and build a new home of their own.
United Artists is proud to present a Hart Sharp Entertainment production of Nicholas Nickleby in association with Cloud Nine Films. The talented ensemble includes Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Alan Cumming, Edward Fox, Romola Garai, Anne Hathaway, Barry Humphries, Charlie Hunnam, Nathan Lane, Christopher Plummer, Timothy Spall, and Juliet Stevenson. Based on the novel by Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby was written for the screen and directed by Douglas McGrath. Produced by Simon Channing Williams, John N. Hart, and Jeffrey Sharp, the film was executive produced by Gail Egan, Robert Kessel, and Michael Hogan. The impressive roster of filmmakers include director of photography Dick Pope, production designer Eve Stewart, editor Lesley Walker, costume designer Ruth Myers, and composer Rachel Portman, with line producer Robert How, hair designer Simon Thompson, and make-up designer Sarah Monzani.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Academy Award®-nominated writer/director Douglas McGrath is best known for his acclaimed adaptation of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow. But even before Emma, he's long been interested in telling the story of Nicholas Nickleby. "Many years ago I saw the landmark Royal Shakespeare Company production that ran nine and a half hours long," he says. "It was the most thrilling theatrical experience I ever had, and I never got it out of my head. It was absolutely amazing.
"Strangely enough, though," he continues, "as I was watching it, I saw there was a fairly simple way to cut it down and make a good movie by just following Nicholas' story - the heart of the story - which is a perfectly gripping and wonderful tale in itself. "
As actor Timothy Spall says, "It's a bit like getting an ostrich into a thermos flask," but when it came time to choose a new project, McGrath took up the challenge of adapting - and condensing - Dickens' epic novel. The result is a streamlined screenplay that pays homage to Dickens' complex, witty tale and does justice to the vast scope of Nickleby's incredible, humorous, and touching journey.
The hill has not yet listed its face to heaven
that perseverance will not gain the summit of at last.
- Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby
Once McGrath finished a draft of the script, he showed it to producers John Hart and Jeffrey Sharp of Hart Sharp Productions, a New York-based production company whose recent credits include Boys Don't Cry and You Can Count on Me. After reading the screenplay, they were immediately smitten with young Nicholas and his colorful circle of friends and enemies.
"I fell in love with Douglas' adaptation," says Sharp. "I felt the story was every bit as relevant to our world today as when it was written. Dickens was one of the foremost social commentators of his day. Particularly with Nicholas Nickleby, as its serialization progressed in the newspapers, it uncovered many injustices in the way children were treated at the time. I also love Dickens' theme of creating a family in the absence of one, which is what Nicholas does throughout his journey. "
With a script in their hands, McGrath and the producers decided to hold a dramatic staged reading to explore the material and get a better picture of what they had. "We knew it would give Doug a personal opportunity to hear his words for the first time with actors," says Hart, "and for us as producers to get a sense of how the adaptation would work with an audience. We also wanted to invite potential studio distribution executives. In particular, Bingham Ray from United Artists expressed early interest in the project and was a big fan of Doug's from Emma. "
On Mondays in New York City, most theatres are dark and the performers have the day off. That made it possible to assemble an excellent group of actors for the reading. "We really hit the jackpot," says Sharp. "Nathan Lane was starring in 'The Producers' at the time, so he came. Tim Curry joined us. Christopher Plummer, Alan Cumming, Anne Hathaway - just an incredible assortment of talented individuals. The reading exceeded our wildest dreams. " UA's Ray was also impressed, and he greenlit the project; a new Nickleby was well on its way.
"The read-through was a joyful experience," McGrath adds. "We had twenty or so actors lined up in chairs across the stage doing no movement whatsoever, just reading from their scripts, and you could feel the power the story had over the audience. You heard the sniffling and laughing. It's really a tribute to how strong these characters are, and how rich and involving the story is. Without costumes, sets, lights, or any kind of action, the power of the story really holds. "
The actors felt the magic of the read-through as well. "We had a terrific time," says Nathan Lane. "It was a wonderful group. "
"A whole load of mad people were there reading the script," adds Alan Cumming, "and a whole load of mad people were in the audience. It was fun, good Dickensian drama right in the middle of New York City. "
Anne Hathaway says, "I was sandwiched between Christopher Plummer and Nathan Lane. I don't even think I could say my first line because I was so impressed by the surroundings. As soon as we finished, we knew it would make a great film. "
Another benefit of the read-through? Many of those same actors found themselves starring in the film as well.
"The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again. "
- Nicholas in Nicholas Nickleby
When the cast and crew finally came together to begin filming, everyone was excited and energized by the roster of on- and off-screen talent the filmmakers had assembled to bring Nicholas Nickleby to life. People were attracted to the project by the opportunity to work with Douglas McGrath and the chance to enter Dickens' enchanting and much-celebrated world - and to bring to life its characters.
Producer Simon Channing Williams has a history of working on accomplished ensemble pictures. He joined the project as a response to the richness of the script and its plethora of great roles. "It's hard to shape memorable characters," Channing Williams says, "but Doug has done that with this script, and he's done it over and over again. It's terrific, and the presence of such fine acting talent throughout the film pays tribute to what Doug has written and allows that talent to produce some really superb performances. "
Nathan Lane, who plays Vincent Crummles in the film, adds, "Doug attracted such a tremendous cast because the screenplay is so well written. Having read the novel again recently in preparation for the film, I was even more impressed by what Doug has done. He's captured the language and humor and included all the great things everyone loves about the novel. It's a really masterful job. "
The producers also felt McGrath also did a great job of tapping into the essence of Dickens. "Doug's way into Dickens is quite straightforward," says Sharp. "He believes good conquers evil, and that's very refreshing. Doug is almost from a different time where manners and a sense of courteousness and decorum actually matter. He invests such a sense of optimism into everything he does it would be impossible not to go out and make his movie. "
Charlie Hunnam has praise for McGrath's way with actors. "Doug creates an environment for an actor where they feel safe and confident with the material," he says. "From my initial meeting with him I was really excited about the prospect of working with such an articulate, thoughtful, and kind man. "
Juliet Stevenson, who plays Mrs. Squeers, had worked with McGrath before. "We worked together on Emma," she says, "and I loved working with him. He's a delight, he's very open to ideas, and he runs a very friendly unit. "
And the film's Mr. Folair, Alan Cumming, is also a previous collaborator. "The thing about Doug," he says, "is that he gets nice groups of people together. Having a good time on set is important to him. "
Romola Garai, who portrays Nicholas' sister, Kate, enjoyed McGrath's vision. "Nicholas Nickleby, like all of Dickens, has been reinterpreted in many different ways," she says, "but Doug is genuinely trying to offer something different and fresh. He was really engaged in the realities of Victorian life. Perhaps because he's from the United States he's able to analyze a situation better from the outside. In England we're so entrenched in our culture and literature that it's great to have new and interesting minds to analyze our books. "
For his part, Tom Courtenay (who plays Newman Noggs) quips, "Doug is lovely and laughs at my jokes - what more could I want?"