“There is something you should understand about the way I work,” says Nanny McPhee. “When you need me, but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go.”
That’s how the unsightly but magical Nanny McPhee—played by Emma Thompson in the upcoming movie—responds to the cool welcome given her by seven children put in her charge.
“Nanny McPhee,” which opens nationwide Friday, stars Thompson and Colin Firth as the recently widowed Mr. Brown, whose children turn to naughtiness after losing their mother and any real relationship with the surviving parent. It falls to Nanny McPhee to right the family ship.
The movie has enough antics to appeal to children, yet its meaningful themes and witty writing engage most adults (and certainly parents). “McPhee” is written by Thompson herself, whose last screenplay was the stellar 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.”
This time, Thompson took the Nurse Matilda series of books by Christianna Brand (three were written in the 1960s and 70s) and produced a story about rearing children.
Script in hand, Thompson and longtime producer Lindsay Doran then turned to director Kirk Jones, best known for the 1998 movie “Waking Ned Devine.” Jones has been directing commercials, however, for 16 years.
“What I saw in this was not only a really good mix of humor and emotion and magic,” Jones recently told religion writers in Los Angeles, “but it also felt like a script which had been nurtured over a period of time.”
Indeed, Thompson started writing the script nine years ago—four years before her own daughter was born. Thompson said she had wanted to write something for children and adults. That task, she said, proved more difficult than adapting “Sense and Sensibility,” for which she won an Oscar.
In the Nurse Matilda books, no real reason is given for the children’s behavior.
“I had to develop a narrative,” said Thompson. “You go from slapstick to tragedy on a sixpence, which is what life is like.”
Marketing for the $34 million movie likens it to “Cinderella” or “Mary Poppins.” Thomas agreed with the comparison and said the movie’s theme is “an ancient myth that we just made a riff on.”
Thompson, Firth and Jones all emphasized their surprise—and appreciation—that adults have responded so enthusiastically to the movie, which opened in the United Kingdom last fall to good business.
Thompson said she has been particularly gratified that fathers are taking a shine to the film.
“Maybe we don’t make enough films about fathers,” she said. “It’s a very powerful parental story.”
Firth, acting in his first real film for children, agreed.
“I’ve been surprised by the breadth of its popularity in England,” said Firth. “It did far better business than any of us imagined.”
Said Jones: “I think it’s quite interesting that even in this day and age, there’s so many people out there who are trying to help us deal with our children—things like “Supernanny” and “Nanny 911″ and those kinds of programs—so it seems very relevant for people.”
“It’s quite surprising the number of men who admit to having a little tear in their eye at certain points in the film,” he said.
One of Jones’ challenges involved the presentation of Mr. Brown’s business. He’s an undertaker, and several times audiences are taken into his quarters and given glimpses of corpses. They’re glimpses now, but originally there were more shots of the dead.
Jones said he eliminated more of those shots in response to early feedback and to make sure children would feel comfortable with the film.
Nanny McPhee’s face, however, just might be scarier than the corpses. Dangling earlobes, bulbous nose, giant warts, snaggletooth and a unibrow unite to make McPhee, well, frighteningly ugly. Thompson’s performance, by contrast, relies on subtlety and nuance.
“I think that was a very, very intelligent decision for her to make,” said Firth.
One might expect as much from Thompson, who, at 46, has been nominated for five Oscars and won two (the “Sense” script and the Best Actress Oscar for “Howard’s End” in 1993).
Yet, Thompson isn’t working much currently, saying she doesn’t want to miss her daughter’s childhood.
“She can be gone in a minute,” said Thompson of her six-year-old daughter. “So while she needs me, I’ll be there.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie’s official Web site is here.
Read our review of “Nanny McPhee” this Friday.