“I did knock”
Based on the children’s stories of Nurse Matilda by Christianna Brand, the British film Nanny McPhee tries its best to grab hold of the magic ever-present in Disney’s Mary Poppins. Liberties are taken—the number of children is changed and the mother, alive in the novels, has passed on in the film—by Oscar-winning screenwriter Emma Thompson in order to make matters as dire as possible, the need for Nanny McPhee immeasurable. So, after a seventeenth nanny is sent screaming from the Brown mansion, “They ate the baby!!”, Colin Firth’s Mr. Brown is left without options. The agency refuses to let him in, unable to con another woman into watching his children, yet a whispered voice calls out before he heads home defeated. An appointment canceled at the funeral parlor of his employ, a suitable replacement to watch the children nowhere to be seen, and seven rambunctious creatures at home wreaking havoc, Brown has no choice but to subconsciously invite Nanny McPhee over. She is the one he needs, after all.
Kirk Jones’s film goes above and beyond the call for the fantastical and overly crazed, lending itself perfectly to the youngsters it’s meant for and grating to the adults accompanying them. There are some very accomplished actors involved in the piece, each performing in grandiose manner—loud, expressive, and physical in action. The bigger the show, the more enraptured the hyper youths watching will be; let’s face it, the undisciplined children needing to watch mirror images of themselves learn to behave won’t be sitting still at a quietly subdued affair. Screaming kids are a necessity, along with as much destruction as possible to toe the line of good fun and overboard, ‘don’t try this at home’ tomfoolery, as well as the dulcet tones and saintly calm of Thompson’s titular heroine. Her unfettered disposition with the ability to stand firm against the pleas of her ward—a little magic surely does help—becomes a tool not only for the Brown children on screen, but also the adventurous ones sitting on the other side, hopefully absorbing the lessons on display.
But Nanny McPhee isn’t only about teaching incorrigible kids manners and responsibility; it is also an exercise showing a father how to be a Dad. After the death of his wife, shortly following the birth of their youngest daughter Agatha, Brown had dug his head into work, doing his best to scrape up a living in hopes he may get out from under the thumb of Lady Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), Aunt of the Missus. Her promise to support the litter monetarily comes with a couple caveats: one, she must take a child for herself to educate and mold into a proper creature of society; two, Mr. Brown must marry once again. Unaware of the ultimatum, the kids have been causing trouble in order to have fun and cause their father discomfort—a sort of jab towards the fact he has drifted away from watching them, reading to them, and proving his love as before. Unfortunately, the actions of their unbridled chaos has left him without any options for a wife besides Celia Imrie’s Selma Quickly, a woman already thrice divorced/widowed and with a reputation that surely precedes her as the evil stepmother the kid’s have read about in their fairy tales.
Thompson’s Nanny must work fast, a fact she obviously is used to despite her rather methodical movements and unflappable demeanor. Having but five lessons to instill in the children, knowing full well that they will learn more than the basics of waking in the morning, saying ‘please’, and listening to authority, she also tellingly works on opening the patriarch up, helping him find the confidence necessary to stand up and find happiness. Being a children’s film, the plot progression becomes repetitive, causing you to wonder when Firth’s overtly naïve gentlemen will finally wake up to what’s staring him in the face, but that is to be expected. Unfortunately, at least for the enjoyment of adult audiences, the blatant spoon-feeding of morality is aimed with good reason towards the targeted audience. Kids want to be entertained—hence the food fights, the immature language, and the absence of common decency—so it is only when their guard is down by laughter that the themes in play resonate. You may know the kids will turn a new leaf, you may even know exactly who Mr. Brown will eventually end up marrying, (if you don’t, you must have fallen asleep), but for the benefit of your child’s enjoyment, don’t check out completely; let them discover it all too.
Nanny McPhee never approaches the level of adulation reserved for works like Mary Poppins—I could have done without the poo and fart jokes along with some very malicious gags risking giving your child the wrong idea if they miss the big picture—but it does have its own inherent charm. Firth does well as the over-the-top, clueless father unknowing of what the title ‘Dad’ entails; Kelly Macdonald is adorable as ever playing his servant and only adult who understands the children and has their respect; Imelda Staunton delivers as comic relief in the kitchen, bringing well needed laughs; and I enjoyed Patrick Barlow and Derek Jacobi as over-exuberant co-workers to Firth. The children are also pitch-perfect in their precociousness and Thompson shines as the haggardly old woman sent to teach the errors of their way. If I had one nagging question, however, I’d wonder about the prosthesis. Lansbury’s bird-nose adds to her villainy, but what do the warts and bucktooth bring McPhee? If you’re just going to let the imperfections disappear as unnecessary evidence of the kids’ learning, why have it all? I can infer some notion that an attractive young woman wouldn’t have the authority to discipline seriously, or even that she herself needed to earn release from a spell of ugliness—her success earning beauty. But, alas, there is a sequel on its way and McPhee is back, warts and all. Maybe that one will explain her transformation for me.
Nanny McPhee 6/10 | ★ ★ ½
[1 & 2] Nanny McPhee – 2006. Copyright © Universal Pictures.