Upon the death of his father, the upstanding title character (Charlie Hunnam) and his mother and sister are forced to rely on a Scrooge-like uncle (Christopher Plummer) for support. Nicholas takes a job at Dotheboys (yes, it's pronounced "Do the boys"), an unimaginably severe country boarding school ruled by a vicious couple (Juliet Stevenson and Jim Broadbent) whose wickedness only fires their ardor.
Plummer and Broadbent's characters embrace evil like only Dickensian villains can, and they inflict considerable cruelty on the good guys, especially Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell as a hapless, disabled servant. But you know you're in safe hands with Nicholas Nickleby, as McGrath uses perfectly balanced comedy to alleviate the extremes of the melodrama. "Is he good or bad?" Tom Courtenay's boozy butler asks on meeting a new character, which sets the film's unapologetically black-and-white approach.
The dialogue does justice to Dickens' trademark exaggeration, often to funny effect: "My curse upon you!" hisses Plummer at one point. But McGrath also injects some more modern, straight-faced jokes into the mix, especially through a troupe of shabby good-hearted thespians led by Nathan Lane and Barry Humphries (Dame Edna).
Hunnam not only looks like a 19th-century hero -- he could have stepped off the cover of a romance novel -- but his acting doesn't flatten Nicholas' essential decency. He's a protagonist you can't help but root for, his all-black formal mourning attire representing his integrity. In following his trials and triumphs, McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby is less a showcase of Dickens the social crusader than Dickens the audience-pleaser, and proves a delightful celebration of old-fashioned Englishness.