“Nanny McPhee”—with its gaggle of children—is more than the hoity-toity version of “Cheaper by the Dozen” or “Yours, Mine and Ours.” It’s a descendant of “Mary Poppins” and “Cinderella,” moving beyond slapstick to deal in the magical, where childhood and parenthood really exist.
The movie, which opens nationwide today, was written by Emma Thompson, who stars as the nanny brought in to help Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) control his seven naughty children. Director Kirk Jones will keep young and old audiences involved, and he produces a movie that—unlike most—actually gets much better as it goes along.
The Brown children are acting out because their mother recently died, and their bad behavior is compounded by their father’s emotional distance. Mr. Brown, an undertaker, is further stressed by the demands of Great Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury, with a prosthetic nose), who warns Brown to take a new wife within a month or else she’ll withdraw her financial support and leave him to debtor’s prison.
The kids, led by the eldest, Simon (Thomas Sangster), are naughty and clever. They hate nannies and have expelled 17 from the house. But they don’t like the thought of a stepmother, either. They show the scullery maid, Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), “hard evidence” in the form of a fairy tale book that stepmothers are horrible. Simon even says fathers become bad once their wives die.
Enter the magical Nanny McPhee, who attempts to help Brown. She’s absolutely ghastly to look at: huge warts, dangling earlobes, bulbous nose, snaggletooth. Horrible. Just horrible—but she knows how to handle children. And as they begin to be receptive to her methods, she slowly begins a physical transformation—for the better, of course.
“Nanny McPhee” is about parents—especially fathers—and children, about childrearing and growing up, about magic and healing. Thompson’s script, based on the Nurse Matilda series of children’s books from the 1960s and 1970s, is whimsical—yet interested in bedrock and sometimes bittersweet ideas about loving and leaving.
“There is something you should understand about the way I work,” Nanny McPhee tells the children upon arrival. “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.”
Fantastic music by Patrick Doyle and brilliant production design by Michael Howells make “Nanny McPhee” one happier degree away from Tim Burton (“Edward Scissorhands”). The colors of rooms, outfits, props and the occasional effect are incredibly vibrant.
The characters themselves are memorable, too. While Firth and Thompson are always wonderful, Lansbury and Macdonald are terrific, too. Macdonald’s Evangeline could have used better character development early on, though, because she becomes pivotal later.
After watching “Nanny McPhee,” you simply wish Thompson wrote more scripts. Her first feature adaptation, “Sense and Sensibility,” won her an Oscar. Though “McPhee” probably won’t garner the same amount of critical acclaim (because it’s a “children’s film”), it’s nevertheless a finely layered story with some very sweet lines.
In the movie, when Mr. Brown is looking for help, he’s told that the person he needs is Nanny McPhee. True. And sometimes the person we need is Emma Thompson.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Mild thematic elements, some rude humor and brief language. Reviewer’s Note: There are a couple of shots of the corpses in the funeral home.
Director: Kirk Jones
Writer: Emma Thompson (based on the books by Christianna Brand)
Cast: Nanny McPhee: Emma Thompson; Cedric Brown: Colin Firth; Evangeline: Kelly Macdonald; Great Aunt Adelaide: Angela Lansbury; Selma Quickly: Celia Imrie; Simon Brown: Thomas Sangster.
The movie’s official Web site is here.