Like squeezing a carthorse into a coalscuttle, writer/director Douglas McGrath adapts Charles Dickens' 800-page opus for the big screen, retaining ye olde worlde Dickensian charm while skipping over the nuances at an Olympian pace.
He homes in on the conflict between the eponymous Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam) and his mercenary Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer) who cross paths when Nicholas' father dies, and his mother (Stella Gonet) turns to Ralph for support.
Ralph promptly despatches Nicholas to a boarding school, run with an iron hand (and a hard-wearing cane) by Mr and Mrs Squeers (Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson). Here, Nicholas earns a crust teaching, and befriends the Squeers' long-suffering houseboy Smike (Jamie Bell).
Meanwhile, Ralph sets about exploiting his sister (Romola Garai) for a fast few quid. Word of it soon reaches Nicholas who, after a violent confrontation with Mr Squeers, takes Smike in tow on a collision course with his nefarious uncle.
Although the enmity between Ralph and Nicholas is key, it sometimes feels overblown as McGrath makes it an immediate part of their relationship to speed up the plot.
The cause isn't aided by Charlie Hunnam's bland portrayal; instead of the brooding hero, we're given a hotheaded fop. Fortunately, there's enough charisma among the supporting cast to buoy up proceedings.
It's with keen intuition that Jamie Bell steals very one of his scenes with Hunnam. Tom Courtenay is deliciously sardonic as Ralph's assistant Newman Noggs. And, as his implacable boss, it's a credit to Christopher Plummer that he inspires sympathy after much evil-doing.
It's a pity the supporting players didn't have more room for manoeuvre. McGrath does well to balance the darkness and light of Dickens' tale, but (even if you're not familiar with the novel) the gaps are palpable.
Like a bowl of watered down gruel, McGrath's "Nicholas Nickleby" will leave you hungry for more.