Master of Miserly Menace
This year’s Most Valuable Player for holiday season Bah! Humbuggery is today’s venerable birthday honoree Christopher Plummer, the Academy Award®- and double Emmy®- and Tony®-winning now-88-year-old treasure playing a salty, spectral and proto-Dickensian Ebenezer Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas in movie theaters and emerging again on Christmas Day as the rigid, ransom-resistant tycoon J. Paul Getty in director Ridley Scott’s fact-based kidnapping suspense thriller All the Money in the World, for which the actor – a whirlwind replacement in a role vacated by the controversial Kevin Spacey – nabbed a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe® nomination Monday. Next year marks an astounding 65 years of visibility on television and cinema screens by the peerless Plummer, for whom his current incarnation of Scrooge is not his first encounter with the canon of Charles Dickens dastards. That auspicious occasion goes back 15 Yuletides to the fabulous, all-star Douglas McGrath adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby (2002), whose initial 1838 serialized appearance in print predated that of A Christmas Carol by five years. Unlike the redemptive, feel-good fable aspects of A Christmas Carol, Dickens had something darker and more socially conscious in mind when he conceived the tale of the hard-luck Nickleby clan and the steely, business-obsessed character of Ralph Nickleby, embodied by Plummer with dry-ice malevolence, who under the pretense of helping his distressed sister-in-law (Stella Gonet), niece (Romola Garai) and title-hero nephew (Charlie Hunnam), schemes to exploit their vulnerable naïveté in the ways of the world to his advantage.
“Ralph Nickleby is a delectable character to sink one's teeth into,” Plummer remarked in the film’s production notes. “He's a complex man, a businessman whose aim in life has been only to protect his interests and those of his select friends. Nicholas and his sister are Ralph's nephew and niece, but he doesn't feel the same as they do about the bonds of family – he never has. At the end of the film, it's that one major flaw for which he pays the ultimate price.” Though Dickens’ generosity of feeling infuses the work through the depiction of an array of charitable do-gooders, love interests and staunch friends personified by Jamie Bell (Smike), Anne Hathaway (Madeline Bray), Tom Courtenay (Newman Noggs), Nathan Lane and Dame Edna Everage (the Crummles), and Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan (the Cheeryble brothers), the calculating Ralph Nickleby’s self-centered outlook casts a profound shadow that has reverberated across 180 years. In assessing Nicholas Nickleby’s “two hours of swift, engaging entertainment,” The New York Times’ A.O. Scott took a moment for deeper reflection, observing: “Far worse, in the novelist's moral scheme, is the cold, controlling, rationalist evil practiced by Ralph Nickleby. Mr. Plummer, with a voice like dry, rattling stones, makes Ralph all the more monstrous by underplaying his malice. The elder Nickleby is a more chilling figure than the inhuman, unseen villains of Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings because his badness is not metaphysical but rather the symbol of a social system that values human beings as things. Dickens was a passionate opponent of the utilitarianism that was the leading public philosophy of his day – Hard Times is his most sustained attack on it – and Nickleby, with his inhuman, self-justifying greed, hardly feels like an obsolete literary type. Mr. McGrath stages his fate in a manner that emphasizes, quite appropriately, the Christian element in Dickens's social radicalism.” Also starring Jim Broadbent (Wackford Squeers), Edward Fox (Sir Mulberry Hawk), Nicholas Rowe (Lord Verisopht), Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Squeers) and David Bradley (Nigel Bray) as deliciously sinister and self-righteous types in reprobate Ralph’s disreputable orbit, Nicholas Nickleby, which won the 2002 National Board of Review’s Best Acting Ensemble Award for Plummer and his fellow thespians, is Dickens done lovingly and well, beautifully served up on an extras-loaded Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.