WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Nanny McPhee sweeps into the chaotic house of widow Cedric Brown and his seven children and immediately sets about casting her spell over the unruly brood. She had better work her magic quickly, however; Cedric’s Aunt Adelaide demands that he remarry within the month, or the whole family will be cut off without a penny.
Life’s hard for undertaker Cedric Brown (Colin Firth). His wife having died shortly after the birth of seventh child Agatha, his days are more than full trying to earn a crust while the kids run riot, although he still relies on the financial support of short-sighted Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury). When the children see off their seventeenth nanny, Cedric and his limited staff of cook Mrs Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton) and maid Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald) are in no position to cope; so Cedric is mightily relieved when ‘Government Nanny’ McPhee (Emma Thompson) pitches up with a host of facial disfigurements, a stern way with words, and a magical stick.
Under the rebellious leadership of elder child Simon (Thomas Sangster), the kids resist the new nanny’s discipline, only to find that doing what they want mysteriously gets them into terrible trouble. There’s bigger trouble still on the horizon: firstly, Adelaide desires to take a child under her own wing; and even if that plan can be thwarted, Cedric still needs to remarry or the family will be left destitute and destined to be broken up. Surely there’s a more eligible woman than Celia Imrie’s frightful Mrs Quickly?
Were one feeling spectacularly grouchy, one could just about muster a charge sheet against Nanny McPhee. The most damning indictment is that McPhee (based on Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda) is undoubtedly a close cousin of P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. Perhaps aware of this, the film plays up McPhee as a negative image of Poppins, at least in appearance; it may also have been a conscious decision not to include any songs, a correct decision whether intended or not.
Another charge is that anyone with an appreciation of – well, fiction, to be frank – will know which way the wind eventually blows the second Evangeline appears; again, guilty, but such is the way with fairytales. Others will recoil at the vivid colour scheme, which recalls pantomime sets, especially when Mrs Quickly bustles into town with her gaudy outfits (for the kids too!) and tips the movie into an excess of noise, colour and mess. There’s even a sense that director Kirk Jones is aiming for a Tim Burton vibe, a feeling strengthened by Patrick Doyle’s Elfman-like and occasionally intrusive score. The vibe doesn’t really pay off, and neither do the special effects: the friendly donkey earmarked to stand in for one of the children looks weird and brings Shrek to mind, not to this movie’s advantage.
All the above is true. Nanny McPhee is broadly pantomimic in style and obviously derived from Mary Poppins, paying direct homage to it at times (kites, anyone?). However, it’s also an utterly charming fairy tale in its own right, infused with a genuine sense of wonder and magic; the humour, colour and fantasy of the movie offers much for the young and young at heart alike, standing in stark contrast to dowdy, sensible tales such as Ever After. Emma Thompson, as screenwriter, knows when to lay on the humour and when to darken the tone, so the movie moves along with the rowdy children’s exuberance, the underlying sadness of the departed wife, and the impending threat of disaster all at once, without ever flagging.
The final scenes, with their pure white motif, recall Shrek in a positive way and can’t help but pull on all but the most cynical hearts; what’s more, McPhee’s five lessons are reminders that good manners, instilled properly, are key to good communication and harmonious co-existence, deftly capturing the zeitgeist of contemporary TV show Supernanny. And there are welcome stings of entirely inappropriate comedy: Cedric is hilariously cheerful about a bout of influenza that boosts his trade; and when was the last time you heard the word ‘incest’ in a kid’s film, let alone delivered in the manner of Edith Evans’ Lady Bracknell?
More than the writing, the film is truly distinguished by the quality of its acting. Thompson is wonderful, expressing her emotions with short grunts, sharp movements and expressive looks which cut straight through the make-up; thankfully, there’s no hint of an explanation of McPhee’s origins or why her appearance changes after each lesson is learnt – the visual metaphor is allowed to stand for itself. Firth’s highly-strung performance is funny, but he also makes you feel his predicament, while hardly anything needs be said about Angela Lansbury other than that she’s every bit as professional as you’d expect.
Macdonald has a sublime capacity to become whatever she needs to be: touching as a lowly scullery maid, she also makes for a lovely lay-dee, even with food on her face. Much credit should also be given to Sangster, who cements his promise from Love, Actually with a performance full of nuanced emotions. The other children, too, are much more palatable than movie kids have a right to be, though I could have done without words being put into the mouths of babes. If you have refined tastes, the combined larking of Staunton, Imrie and Patrick Barlow and Derek Jacobi as Cedric’s unbelievably camp parlour assistants might come over as overkill; personally, I enjoyed their pantomime turns, Imrie in particular playing up the wicked stepmother to great effect.
Nanny McPhee is, when push comes to shove, a children’s film, and it would be silly to say that it offers adults the same sweet treats it gives to children. That said, it is a great children’s film, which deserves to become as well established a classic as Disney’s practically perfect progenitor.