Nanny McPhee may not be a great film — it certainly has its share of flaws — and yet it is such a strange brew as to be fascinating even at its worst. Its striking combination of day-glo psychedelic colors and a rich streak of morbidity is enough to keep it afloat most of the time — despite those moments when star Emma Thompson’s screenplay falters.
I saw Nanny McPhee with a friend who, in his own words, “pretty much hated it,” though I should note that a significant portion of his dislike seems to have been grounded in a distaste for seeing children being taught discipline.
I would agree that there was something amiss if the lessons learned in Nanny McPhee were designed to lead down the path of conformity, but I don’t think that’s the message. In a film that so completely embraces the oddball and the eccentric, I’m hard pressed to find fault with simple lessons in manners, resourcefulness and the idea that we are personally responsible for the consequences of our actions. (I know some adults who could benefit from remedial courses in these subjects.)
Emma Thompson adapted the film from the popular Nurse Matilda series of children’s books (popular in Great Britain, at least). While I can’t comment on the faithfulness of her work, it’s hard to deny that she generally did a good job of creating a separate fairy-tale world for the film — a world in which the fantasy is anchored to a kind of casually grotesque reality.
In Nanny McPhee, there are moments when this verges on the nightmarish. This is partly owing to the exaggerated color scheme, which manages to combine the brightest imaginable colors with a musty sense of decay, and partly due to the decision to make the children’s father, Cedric Brown (Colin Firth), a mortician.
Death is a common element in children’s stories, yes. There’s very often a dead parent (as there is here) and the threat of some grisly demise (usually involving becoming luncheon for a wolf, a troll, a witch, a giant, etc.) is invariably in the air. However, I can think of no story or film that focuses on the physical reality of death like this one does, with Brown reflecting on how an influenza epidemic is good for business and carrying on matter-of-fact conversations — once with his son, Simon (Thomas Sangster, Love Actually) — over whatever corpse he’s working on at the moment. This might be off-putting to some viewers, but it definitely gives the film an identity of its own — something it badly needs, since the basic story line is of the workmanlike variety.
Cedric is a widower with seven children who appear to be in training for a future as serial killers. When the movie opens, they have succeeded in driving off their 17th nanny by convincing her that they have cooked and eaten the baby. Not unsurprisingly, the employment agency is disinclined to send out another, but Cedric keeps getting messages that insist, “The person you need is Nanny McPhee.”
However, he seems thwarted at any attempt to find her, whereupon she shows up on his doorstep — more like a figure from a thriller (her entry recalls Alec Guinness arrival in The Ladykillers) than a kiddie flick. Nanny McPhee (Thompson) is scarcely a thing of beauty, but rather a lumpy, black-garbed figure with a face festooned with warts, a single eyebrow and a wayward front tooth that protrudes over her lower lip when her mouth is closed. Soon she’s setting the children — and more — to rights with her no-nonsense approach and a few touches of magic in her capacity as what she calls a “government nanny.”
The bulk of the film actually involves a subplot concerning Cedric’s rich Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) and her insistence that he remarry in 30 days or else forfeit the allowance she provides — a threat that would break up the family and land Cedric in debtor’s prison. Despite the presence of an obviously love-struck maid, Evangeline (Kelly MacDonald, who once played Firth’s daughter in My Life So Far), Cedric sets out to wed the ghastly Selma Quickly (Celia Imrie, Bridget Jones’s Diary). The widow Quickly — who appears to be some kind of peculiar shepherdess and possibly a part-time 19th-century Mary Kay dealer, judging by her color sense — is poised to become the quintessential wicked stepmother. Obviously, steps must be taken.
This is all familiar stuff that’s generally made fresh by the approach here. Some of it doesn’t work. The children are a bit much at first and there’s an extended too-cute-to-live sequence involving a donkey being palmed off on the nearsighted Aunt Adelaide as one of Cedric’s daughters. I’m sure the latter is a nod to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it’s frankly cringe-inducing. Patrick Doyle’s musical score tries way too hard to goose the comedy elements, which themselves often seem forced when the film heads for over-the-top slapstick.
Taken as a whole, however, Nanny McPhee has more going for it than not as a truly quirky, non-assembly-line family movie. Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some rude humor and brief language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke