Life in the country moves at a gentle pace for Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam) until his father dies and propels the family into poverty. Traveling to London, they call upon their Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer) for assistance. But the miserly capitalist sees the widow and her two children as merely a labor force to exploit for his gain.
Thus begins the tale of Nicholas Nickleby, a classic Dickens's novel filled with the writer's recurrent elements of bleak workhouses, abandoned children and oppressive taskmasters.
Nicholas, sent out of the city to work as an assistant in a boys' school, is abhorred by the squalid living conditions the young tenants endure while Wackford Squeer (Jim Broadbent) and his wife (Juliet Stevenson) thrive on the hoarded school fees. Giving their students a gummy substance to quell their appetites, the harsh mistress regularly beats the boys for minor infractions and puts them to bed in straw filled boxes.
Smike (Jamie Bell), a crippled student unable to pay, is sentenced to serve as the family servant, constantly at the beck and call of the callous Mrs. Squeer. While some canoodling goes on between the headmaster and his wife, there is little love lost on any of the children.
Finally driven to violently attacking the cruel schoolmaster, Nicholas escapes with the maltreated houseboy and heads back to London. There he finds his sister's existence has been no less humiliating. Dressed up and paraded for the amusement of their uncle's dinner guests, she endures the tasteless sexual taunting of her relative's impudent colleague.
But the arrival of his nephew in the English capital only serves to anger Ralph who vows to do away with Nicholas and quash any of his hopes for happiness, including his budding relationship with the artistic Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway).
Depictions of child abuse, a suicide and alcohol misuse darken this story of good verses evil set in the 1800s. But for families with older children and teens, the belief that one should live with dignity and goodness despite life circumstances can provide a ray of inspiration.