2006Director: Kirk Jones
Cast: Colin Firth, Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson
ike an old recipe for chocolate chip cookies, Nanny McPhee extols the virtues of reliability and familiarity. The film’s principal charms lie in the orchestrations of a well-worn formula. Employing shorthand to achieve plot development, such as dreamy music upon the entrance of a romantic subplot, merely increases the comfiness of the movie. Occasionally, the film does vary from what one might expect—for the better and the worse. Childishly vulgar computer-animated animals err on the side of bad taste, but the film recovers and a few light dollops of macabre and perversity make for a pleasant Sunday afternoon.
The movie tells the story of an unruly bunch of British nursery-children beyond the influence of their well-meaning but ineffective father (Colin Firth). After a string of veritable nannies fail in their duties (the last one driven away when the tykes stage a cannibalistic meal), the highly mysterious Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) arrives to set hearth and home to rights. Goading the noisy brood into decorous behavior takes a disappointingly short time, and McPhee spends the rest of the film improving the family’s economic situation. With a few stuffy aunts, widowed sluts, and shyly romantic maids, Nanny McPhee trots out the wholesome staples of a British family film.
Playing the titular character and writing the screenplay, Emma Thompson is the movie’s driving force. Her character, a mixture of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Mary Poppins, certainly doesn’t provide room for an impressive performance, but Thompson nonetheless suffices. Obscured behind a frightening mask of warts, ruddiness, and protruding teeth, the reliable actress strides through her acting requirements like the worthiest of mares.
As McPhee works her magic and home-life improves, the ugly demeanor happily recedes and her stately beauty begins to emerge. Surprisingly, this conceit proves a most effective one; as the final revealing occurs, Thompson’s perfectly modulated expression of gracious empathy brought tears to my eyes (even Love Actually reduced me to sniffling using naught but the woman’s regal melancholy). Ultimately, despite the filmmaker’s odd insistence on an assortment of irritating sparkly noises as Nanny McPhee moves about, the main protagonist proves an amusing and appropriate backbone to the film.
The other characters, however, are much flimsier. The seven children rarely distinguish themselves from a roaring prepubescent mass, occasionally exhibiting two-dimensional personalities such as rebellious-and-distrusting-leader or intellectual-user-of-big-words-including-a-sly-nod-to-class-systems. Colin Firth and Angela Lansbury, pardon the cliché, sleepwalk their way through the film. Thankfully, Kelly McDonald and Celia Imrie, as Firth’s pair of love interests, admirably shoulder their share of the weight. By turns, sweetly naïve and brassily whorish, the actresses tackle their roles with gusto. Even when the story desperately scrambles for engaging plot lines, including an inevitable food fight, the ladies remain a joy to watch.
A diverting and fluffy experience, Nanny McPhee certainly isn’t memorable. Nonetheless, in this day and age, one can imagine far worse fates when entering the arena of movies for children. Conducive to good-humor, the film should provoke gentle smiles and complacent tolerance.