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Nanny McPhee (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 27 January 2006
“Mary Poppins.” There, it’s been said as it must be in any American review of “Nanny McPhee,” since the only British nanny most Americans have heard of is Mary Poppins. Forget “The Nanny” with Bette Davis, forget even the many “Mary Poppins” books. It’s only Julie Andrews who makes the nanny medicine go down for Americans.

Until now, at least. “Nanny McPhee” is a charming, oddly stylized movie with a carefully and delicately shaded performance by Emma Thompson at its center. She also wrote the screenplay from Christianna Brand’s “Nurse Matilda” books, new to me. Thompson doesn’t work in movies very much these days, so anything that brings her back to the screen is welcome.

The setting is the English countryside around the middle of the 19th century or thereabouts--at least everyone looks like they stepped out of a Dickens novel. It opens with Cedric Brown (Colin Firth) telling us that the story begins with an empty chair; we soon realize it’s the chair of his late wife. It’s not too surprising that she died after having seven children in what must have been about ten years

The first shot with actors has a woman running screaming from the gently wacky Brown house. She’s the 17th nanny the Brown children have sent trembling from their door, and the little brats are proud of their accomplishments in nanny-expelling. The eldest boy, Simon (Thomas Sangster), is the ringleader, but all the kids, including the baby, are equally responsible for ridding themselves of nannies.

Their father is a hard-working mortician—not a profession fathers in movies ordinarily have—and largely because of his melancholia over the loss of his wife, he has abdicated any kind of control over his children. Red-faced, frizzy-haired cook Mrs. Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton, Oscar-nominated for “Vera Drake”) carries a paper signed by the father promising the children won’t invade the kitchen—and she flourishes it frequently. Scullery maid Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald) is fond of the children, and they like her, but she’s also secretly in love with Mr. Brown.

Trying to hire another nanny, he finds the agency closed to him, and is surprised when the mail slot whispers “the person you need is Nanny McPhee.” The newspaper carries an ad directed at him with the same comment, but the kids have cut away the address. No matter. One rainy night when the children are particularly horrid, having invaded the kitchen, tied up Mrs. Blatherwick and are running riot through the vegetables, puddings, pots and pans there’s a knock at the door.

It is, of course, Nanny McPhee (Thompson); she’s pudgy, carries a gnarled walking stick and has a coarse, warty face with one large buck tooth. She immediately takes charge of the surprised children; when she taps her cane on the floor, magic happens (represented by skittering sparks). She tells the children “When you need me but do not want me, I shall stay. When you want me but no longer need me, I must go.”

She tells Mr. Brown that there are five lessons the children must learn. She doesn’t identify the first and last, but the story follows the acting out of the other lessons. The Brown children, especially Simon, are very bright and basically good kids; they gradually do learn their lessons (go to bed when told, say please and thank you, etc.).

The complications arise when the late Mrs. Brown’s Great Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), who, unknown to the children, has regularly been giving Cedric money, decides that if he doesn’t marry in a month, she will cut off the stipends. The children, who are worried about a fairy tale-style stepmother, will be sent to foster children with the eldest going to the workhouse, and Cedric will wind up in debtors’ prison. Starchy Aunt Adelaide, always convinced of her utter rightness, eventually shows up at the Brown house and demands to be given one of the daughters to raise properly.

“Nanny McPhee” is directed by Kirk Jones, whose only previous film was the wry “Waking Ned Devine.” The performances here by one and all are highly stylized in a children’s-book manner. Aunt Adelaide, with her hawk nose, is a dreadful old battleaxe. The only woman Cedric knows of whom he might marry is three-time widowed Selma Quickly (Celia Imrie), a ghastly overdecorated fussbudget. She’s all intense pink and lemon yellows from her clothes to her house to the dyed lambs she brings to the climactic wedding. Evangeline is a child’s dream of an adult friend, kind, good-natured and pretty. But she thinks she’s inferior to Cedric because she’s a near-illiterate maid.

Nanny McPhee, of course, is the catalyst that changes everything. Unlike elegantly prissy Mary Poppins, she’s a dignified but mysterious figure; she doesn’t talk very much (her most frequent comment is a slight grunt, along the lines of “mmn”), but when she does, people pay attention. Mary Poppins arrived at the Banks household less to help the children than to help the Banks be better parents. Nanny McPhee shows up because the children really do need the loving discipline she brings; she also is there to help the father find happiness, but that’s almost a side issue. It’s these Katzenjammer kids who need attending to. She tends to come and go mysteriously, often startling people, though she firmly points out “I DID knock.” As the children learn their lessons, her face improves, although it’s not clear what the point of this is. She finally ends up looking just like Emma Thompson. Uncanny, that.

The movie is vividly stylized, including the interiors of the Brown house. The walls are painted in deep, rich colors (was this a trend in this period?); it’s a bit worse for the wear of seven active children, but also has a warm, comforting aura. Production designer Michael Howells does a splendid job from large-scale ideas to smaller details, like the stuffed bear that unaccountably decorates Cedric’s office.

The acting is great fun; Thomas Sangster, also in “love actually,” is an outstanding child actor. Every gesture and facial expression seems natural and unrehearsed. Much is the same of the other kids who are sometimes given surprising lines. This is the first time I can recall seeing Colin Firth, usually a variation on Mr. Darcy, so warm and engaging. He’s a bit of a scatterbrain, completely helpless in dealing with his own children, but clearly a good man.

But the centerpiece, of course, is Emma Thompson as Nanny McPhee. It takes some effort to stop staring at her one gleaming buck tooth and the big warts here and there on her face. But the performance doesn’t depend on the makeup, it’s from the inside out. From the moment we see her, we know that Nanny McPhee, for all her no-nonsense quality, is a caring and wise person. She’s not as showy as Mary Poppins—no jumping into chalk paintings here—but she does have her own magic ways. She can make a donkey walk on its hind legs and get flirtatious (this is going a bit too far), and at the climax, makes it snow in August. (A wonderful, magical scene that works exactly the way the filmmakers intended.)

The movie is a little slow and never quite as funny as it keeps suggesting it might be. The outcome of everything is never in question; the children will learn to be well behaved, Mr. Brown will eventually realize what a catch Evangeline is, Great-Aunt Adelaide will get her comeuppance (it’s no surprise that the climax involves the gooey equivalent of a pie fight) and all the right people will live happily ever after with Nanny McPhee going on to the next children who may not want her, but need her.

It’s hard to predict the reaction of children to this; those in the audience were very quiet, but whether this was because of involvement or disinterest is impossible to say. But it’s worth taking a chance with this winning film.

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