Rating: PG (mild thematic elements, some rude humor, brief language)
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: January 27, 2006
Directed by: Kirk Jones
Stars: 3 out of 5
Unruly kids are a staple of family films. There is plenty of comedy and drama to be mined from an unruly brood of children learning their lesson and getting their comeuppance in a film. In “Nanny McPhee,” a motley crew of seven kids who recently lost their mother is taken to task by the titular character, who is based on a character in the “Nurse Matilda” children’s books.
Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) has just seen the seventeenth nanny in a row leave his home because she could not keep his children under control. They seem to have scaring away nannies down to a science, even going so far as to chop off the heads of dolls and pretend to have eaten their baby sibling. Then one day, as is the case in many fairy tales, a mysterious and possibly magical new woman, Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), shows up on their doorstep.
Though some may compare McPhee to Mary Poppins, there are a number of differences. For starters, McPhee does not sing, and though she has a great imagination and a heart of gold like Poppins, physically she is quite different. Her clothes are dour, and she is cursed with big warts and buck teeth that make it hard to close her mouth completely. She looks almost like a witch that young children would be scared of in a fairy tale.
McPhee immediately begins to discipline the children, but not in a cruel way. Instead, she uses life lessons and some magic to impart her wisdom. Their mutual affection continues to grow, even as it is challenged by a decree from Great Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) that Mr. Brown must remarry within a month. If he doesn’t, she will withdraw her much-needed financial support from the struggling family, which would leave them in ruin.
A new mom for the kids means that Nanny McPhee might have to leave, which worries the children. In addition, Mr. Brown picks the unpleasant Mrs. Quickly (Celia Imrie) to be his new bride instead of housemaid Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), who is much nicer and beloved by the kids.
Thompson gives a fantastic performance as the magical McPhee, who is quite obviously much more than her huge teeth or facial warts. Though her appearance is purposely off-putting at first, she gradually begins to look more and more like Thompson does in real life, shedding a new wart each time the kids learn one of her lessons. Thompson transforms Nanny McPhee from an unsightly, possibly insane woman to a true hero who wins the hearts of nearly everyone in the film. Thompson is a very capable actress who could pull off almost any part on her own, but the fact that she also wrote the screenplay for the film probably didn’t hurt her portrayal.
This is not Thompson’s first foray into adapting beloved material for the screen, as she wrote the screenplay for the Jane Austen drama “Sense and Sensibility” back in 1995. She writes so eloquently and with such a deft hand for balance that one wonders why she doesn’t write more often. “Nanny McPhee” is sweet without being too sugary and mischievous without being outright rude. It takes a strong writer to strike that balance, yet Thompson does it almost effortlessly. Combine that with her strong acting, and it is easy to see that the film could not have possibly been made without her.
Colin Firth and Kelly Macdonald turn in their usual fantastic performances, each showing a penchant for comedy timing. Their chemistry together is very good, which is another reason why the audience will root for McDonald’s Evangeline to win Mr. Brown’s heart over Mrs. Quickly. Angela Lansbury is almost unrecognizable as the curmudgeonly great aunt who has a crooked nose and a heart to match.
Director Kirk Jones uses CGI in an almost whimsical way in “Nanny McPhee,” so it adds to the story instead of distracting from it. He has assembled an all-star cast that has enough talent to fill an ocean, although this is Thompson’s film from start to finish. She may not sing or give the children a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, but viewers still won’t be able to take their eyes off of her.