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“Nicholas Nickleby” should be nominated for best picture of the year, Douglas McGrath for best director, and Christopher Plummer for best supporting actor. It should not only be nominated but ought clearly to win the Oscar for best writing in the adaptation category. It is a wonderful film. All of you who read this should see it. Take a Democrat with you. If possible, take a pundit.
As with most of Dickens’ books, the bad men in Nicholas Nickleby are very bad, and the good people are very good. The evil souls are formed that way – the good ones emerge from different circumstances, sometimes against all odds. Class does not predict character, and endings are not always happy. These are sound and important lessons too often forgotten in today’s politics.
Ralph Nickleby, completely hollowed out and full of venom, is perfectly played by Plummer. Forty-eight years after Plummer melted from stone into song as Captain von Trapp, he manages as Ralph to grow harder, meaner and more vengeful throughout this role as Nicholas’ speculating uncle. There is no saving him, and that was another of the many recurring themes in Dickens’ novels.
This is the lesson I wish most on the left could understand: that evil just is – and it grows more dense not less with the accumulation of power and the passage of time. As I wrote last week, and repeatedly throughout at my web site, the Clinton apologists are trying to pin the blame for North Korean perfidy on President Bush. This past Sunday, Al Hunt blamed the North Korean nuclear cheating on Bush’s axis of evil speech. On Monday, Josh Marshall changed arguments again and blamed worsening relations with South Korea on Bush. All of this wild swinging at air is a refusal to confront evil (Kim Jong Il) and to call to account the incompetence/appeasement in the Clinton/Carter approach. It took a full year for the doubters to come around to the clarity that Saddam needs to be disarmed or overthrown. It will probably take as long for moral clarity to assert itself vis-a-vis North Korea.
Most of the commentariat is divided into three categories: those who correctly judge the world in terms of good vs. evil; those who deny that such judgments can often be made; and those who get the judgments wrong. Dickens was clearly in the first category. The libertarians and their fellow travelers are in the second category, with a considerable camp among the journalists. (This is the camp that increasingly dominates the world of blogs, including three of the best blogs by Virginia Postrel, Glenn Reynolds and Eugene Volokh, though the heirs of Dickens’ approach are gathering at National Review’s The Corner and Powerline.) And then there are those who tell themselves they are operating in Dickens’ tradition because they have “compassion” for the poor, but in fact their politics aim solely to advance their party’s political agenda.
The chattering class has spent most of the past 40 years denying the legitimacy of the good vs. evil debate at the center of Dickens’ morality. Domestic politics drove this tactic as the abortion debate and many others demanded a sanding down of the moral impulse under the weight of practical needs. Great numbers of people unilaterally disarmed when it came to hard thinking on good vs. evil, and have become very much like Lord Frederick Verisopht in Dickens’ tale – aware that much is amiss and unable to summon the resolve to intervene.
Moviegoers will find Lord Verisopht a minor figure in the movie, played by Nicholas Rowe and dominated throughout the film as he is in the book by the malicious Sir Mulberry Hawk, played by James Fox. On four occasions Verisopht could have moved to oppose the plots of bad men, and only on one occasion does he even give a weak try. He redeems himself in the novel, but necessary editing does not give him his last, decisive act in the film. Too bad. It would have been instructive to many in the new century to see that, with enough thought and resolution, it is possible to decisively break with the rotten and side with the good and the bold.
It is probably foolish to hope for the widespread return of hard thinking on basic morality – a turning from the slow slide into the moral desert of libertarian indifference to all but free choice. But when a film comes along that even for a moment revives a great tradition and salutes a great practitioner of clear speaking on good vs. evil, then spread the word and buy the tickets. Such occasions do not come that often that they should be missed.