The appeal of meticulously rendered cobwebs soon fades in this hectoring star-studded extravaganza about the struggles of the teenage Nicholas Nickleby (Hunnam) to rescue his mother, sister and brutalised friend Smike (Bell) from exploitation by his uncle and cronies. McGrath's adaptation of Dickens' intricate novel is dismally short on exposition, poorly scripted, emotionally sterile and generally the result of mixed-up thinking, not least about Victorian speech. Unwisely ignoring modern sensibilities, the more the film insists on playing the gormless friendship between Nickleby and Smike straight, the more you expect the pair to start kissing. That we're then expected to believe Smike has fallen in love with Nickleby's sister Kate (Garai) is surpassed in ridiculousness only by the expediency with which another character dies to make way for Nicholas's drippy wedding. The womenfolk are no better. Having adapted Austen's Emma, McGrath should know better than to proffer a simpering wimp permanently on the verge of tears as the putatively feisty Kate. Apart from a one-dimensional ogress played by Juliet Stevenson, the only female character with spunk comes courtesy of Barry Humphries. The actors revel in their craft to stultifying effect, and while self-satisfied performances from Spall and Broadbent are just about tolerable, young Bell can hardly be said to have paid dues.