by Mel Valentin
Loosely based on the “Nurse Matilda” series of children’s books written by Christianna Brand in the early 1960s and adapted for the screen by two-time Academy Award winner Emma Thompson (who stars in the title role), "Nanny McPhee" is an utterly delightful children’s fantasy film elevated by winning, appealing performances from a mix of seasoned professionals and child actors, and, at its core, physical comedy, a light, assured touch by director Kirk Jones ("Waking Ned Devine"), and ultimately, a hopeful, optimistic message that families divided by loss, grief, and misunderstandings can be cobbled back together (if only with magical assistance).A governess with magical powers in the mold of Mary Poppins, Nanny McPhee (Thompson) appears at the desperate request of Cedric Brown (Colin Firth), a Victorian-era widower with seven incorrigible children. With the assistance of the primly dressed Mr. Wheen (Derek Jacobi) and Mr. Jowls (Patrick Barlow), Cedric receives a steady income as the local mortician. Cedric’s children, including Simon (Thomas Sangster), Eliza (Eliza Bennett), Eric (Raphael Coleman), Lily (Jennifer Rae Daykin), Sebastien (Sam Honywood), and Christianna Brown (Holly Gibbs), have driven away 17 different nannies, the last one in record time. Not surprisingly, the nanny service refuses to provide Cedric and his brood with another nanny to terrorize (actually, they’ve run out). Hearing the words, “The person you need is Nanny McPhee,” from a mail slot and, later, finding her services advertised in the paper, Cedric summons Nanny McPhee, a tall, singularly unattractive woman of stern disposition and one or two magical tricks.
"This British nanny is no Mary Poppins, but maybe that's a good thing."
The children, of course, see Nanny McPhee as just one more nanny to bully, but Nanny McPhee proves more than equal to the task of disciplining the children, while teaching them five important life lessons. As it turns out, when those life lessons are done, when the children’s need for Nanny McPhee no longer exists, then McPhee will leave. The children’s education in gentle paternalism take a back seat, however, to a more pressing concern. Cedric becomes obsessed with remarrying by an apparently self-imposed deadline, a decision favored by the children’s Great Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury). Mrs. Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton), the cook, provides the children and Mr. Brown with sustenance, but clings tightly to a written agreement that bars the unruly children from her kitchen. The maid, Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), manages to gain respect and responsiveness from the children, even as her attraction to Cedric is evident to everyone but Cedric (of course).
Complications ensue when Great Aunt Adelaide appears with a proposition for Cedric, one that threatens to rend the already fragile Brown family. Led by Simon, the children turn their talent for pranks to good use, throwing obstacles in the way of Great Aunt Adelaide’s plans for the family and, later, when desperate circumstances force Cedric to romance Selma Quickly (Celia Imrie). Selma is everything the children don’t want or need. She’s crude, vulgar, self-centered, and most importantly, has woeful, uncultivated taste in clothing. All told, Selma Quickly makes for easy ridicule, as does the visually impaired, hook-nosed, uncaring Great Aunt Adelaide.
As with most children-centered fantasies, the incomplete, damaged nuclear family unit we encounter in the beginning of the film must be made whole again. Nanny McPhee is less a central character than a catalyst for the emotional and psychological changes that help to repair the distance between Cedric and his children, especially Simon, who feels betrayed and injured at his father’s inattentiveness since his mother died. That Nanny McPhee ultimately ends with a reconstituted family with a new mother for the children is no surprise (the children feared the evil stepmother they read about in fairy tales). That the new mother (and wife) is much younger than her rival is also unsurprising. Both elements, the newly reconstituted family, the relative youth of the new stepmother, might point to a conservative subtext (proponents of so-called traditional values will likely applaud the fairy tale ending, even as they express doubts about a magic-empowered governess). Then again, it’s hard to argue against a film that puts the children’s happiness first and foremost.
Viewers can also forgot about the inner beauty/outer beauty message popularized in Shrek and its sequel (e.g., its inner beauty, defined by good acts toward others, that really matters). Here, outer ugliness is equally matched by inner ugliness, with the exception of Nanny McPhee, but then again she's a special case (plus we never do learn where she came from, why she was cursed, if, in fact, she was). We do learn what the lessons she imparts to the children ultimately mean to her, if only superficially. Nanny McPhee's fate is also left unresolved, leaving the door open for a sequel (depending on box-office receipts and DVD sales/rentals, of course).Subtext aside, Emma Thompson’s sturdy script never flags, introducing new complications or reversals just as earlier ones are about to sort themselves out. Kirk Jones, the director, ensures that the lightweight tone never strays too far into the dark emotional territory of childhood loss and grief. In the brightly colored set design and, for the villainous characters, garish, kitschy clothing, children and their parents will find much to laugh at and in the performances, especially Thomas Sangster as Simon (but really all the child actors), Emma Thompson as Nanny McPhee, and Colin Firth as the ineffectual, if well-meaning Cedric Brown (reversing the role and position of the Mr. Darcy character he played in the well-respected BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s "Pride & Prejudice," there’s much to enjoy.
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originally posted: 01/27/06 19:37:17