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When Douglas McGrath is bad, he’s horrid. And when he’s good, he’s probably adapting a 19th-century English novel. The American writer-director, whose last project was the universally reviled CIA comedy Company Man, charmed Anglophiles in 1996 with a blithe version of Jane Austen’s Emma. Now he’s taken a similarly airy approach to a novelist who’s generally considered heavier going: paid-by-the-word social reformer Charles Dickens. When adapted for the stage two decades ago, Nicholas Nickleby ran more than eight hours, but McGrath manages to tell the story of innocent, newly fatherless 19-year-old Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam) in one-quarter that time. The abbreviated version does de-emphasize the crusade at the heart of the original novel: Dickens wanted to expose so-called boarding schools that were in fact little more than prisons. McGrath’s Nickleby quickly escapes the school run by the ostentatiously malevolent Squeers (Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson), taking the victimized Smike (Billy Elliott star Jamie Bell, pictured) with him. After a brief interlude with a theatrical troupe (whose players include Emma alumnus Alan Cumming), Nickleby returns to London to rescue his mother and sister from his evil uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer)—and fall in love with Madeline (Anne Hathaway), who’s also the object of his uncle’s sinister machinations. Playful, self-conscious, and more theatrical than novelistic, this Nickleby has no patience for Dickensian earnestness. But as a parable of youthful good triumphing over crotchety old evil, it’s a lot fresher than another staging of A Christmas Carol. Nicholas Nickleby screens at area theaters; see Showtimes for details. (Mark Jenkins)