Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Kelly MacDonald, Angela Lansbury
Love makes you real...
Based on the British "Nurse Matilda" children's stories from the 1960's, "Nanny McPhee" is a visually delightful family film with a strong cast, fluid direction and a clear, concise story that will please young children and should involve parents enough to make the entire experience a wonderful opportunity for parents and children to chat openly and honestly about a variety of family matters.
These days, it seems as if the vast majority of children's or family films are simply dumbed-down adult films or they have story lines with subliminal double entendres that will please adults while children are supposedly distracted by the visual goings on. The reality is most children these days get the double entendres more quickly than adults and these films are anything but family films.
"Nanny McPhee" is different. Whereas this month's "Hoodwinked" attempted to accomplish a similar mission of returning to to the essence of family films, it forget its other obligation...to entertain.
"Nanny McPhee" entertains, though in much the way other British comedies entertain. "Nanny McPhee" combines visual imagery, subtlety, consummate dialogue and a touch of morality into a simple, yet captivating package. "Nanny McPhee" will seldom, if ever, have you rolling in the aisles with laughter, but it will likely have you constantly watching, thinking, smiling and looking over at the children in the auditorium as they giggle, shake their heads with familiarity and, ultimately, remain hypnotized by the screen.
"Nanny McPhee" is a labor of love by its screenwriter, Oscar-winning British actress Emma Thompson, who also stars in the title role.
The story centers around Mr. Brown (Colin Firth), a recently widowed funeral director with seven children who are, shall we say, behaviorally challenged. The film opens with their chasing off their 17th nanny by "eating the baby," a seen that is rather gross but remarkably ingenious. When Mr. Brown goes to the nanny agency to hire yet another nanny, the agency abruptly closes. As he walks away he hears "The nanny you need is Nanny McPhee."
We learn, of course, that there's no Nanny McPhee working at the agency, or any agency, and all attempts to find this nanny fail. Then, one night when the children are particularly out of control, there's a knock on the door and at the door is a rather disfigured, unattractive Nanny McPhee, warts and all. She enters the kitchen, where the children are torturing the ever so frazzled cook (Imelda Staunton) and, well, the situation is resolved through a unique mix of natural consequence and what seems like magic.
We learn that Nanny McPhee is there to teach the children five basic lessons, then her work is done. She states very clearly that this is how she works..."When you need me, but do not want me I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me I must leave."
This is, perhaps, the brilliance of Thompson's script but also its greatest hindrance. The film is, in fact, perfectly laid out. The previous paragraph tells you exactly what will happen in the film, and while how these lessons are played out varies it is, nonetheless, this journey we are on and this journey we receive. There is nothing more and nothing less to the film. This ultimately works because Thompson's script delivers on its promise. By the end of the film, and this is the way it should be in a family film, the issues are resolved and the lessons have been learned.
The film's cast is uniformly marvelous and even a tad inspiration. Colin Firth brings a depth to his character that makes us feel his grief as he sits at night talking to his wife's empty chair, ignores his grieving children and the world crumbling around him.
Unknown to the children, the family has been supported for years by their rich Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), a nearly blind, always obnoxious old woman who believes in proper elocution and that he MUST remarry for the sake of the children. In fact, she states that if he does not remarry by the end of the month the family "allowance" will be cut off.
In a panic, he proposes to Selma Quickly (Celia Imrie), the very sort of stepmother the children read about in fairy tales and who frightens them immensely. In the meantime, a secretly smitten servant Evangeline (Kelly MacDonald) believes herself too lowly and that he would never be interested in a woman who is just now learning to read.
All of this is wrapped neatly around Nanny McPhee's lessons to the children, and while there are a few cute, effective special effects director Kirk Jones ("Waking Ned Devine") largely relies on the chemistry within the cast to sell the story. It works.
As the lessons unfold, the children learn much more than the defined lessons. They learn about family, friendship, loyalty and the natural consequences of the choices we make. In a scene where Aunt Adelaide has come to take the burden of one child off of Mr. Brown, we see the servant Evangeline offer herself to Aunt Adelaide, who fails to even notice this is a young woman and certainly no child. What a powerful lesson it is that in the midst of when Mr. Brown is trying to marry, Evangeline ultimately does what love must do.
"Nanny McPhee" also has a bit of a "Velveteen Rabbit" theme to it as that common lesson that "Love makes you real" radiates throughout the film. It is most vivid in the person of Nanny McPhee, who becomes more beautiful each time the children learn a lesson. One by one, her warts disappear, her skin clears and her disfigured face becomes a face of beauty.
Likewise, when Aunt Adelaide comes back to the home for the wedding between Mr. Brown and Selma with the now prim and proper Evangeline the kids are awestruck at how much she's changed and how beautiful she is. Mr. Brown's response? "She's always looked that way." Beautiful, simply beautiful.
"Nanny McPhee" is a recipient of the Truly Moving Picture Award from the Heartland Film Festival, and is truly a moving picture that serves as a wondrous view for the entire family. Fans of Working Title's British comedies will likely find this more family-oriented fare tremendously satisfying. With strong performances from Thompson, Firth and the entire supporting cast including the children (most notably Thomas Sangster of "Love Actually") "Nanny McPhee" features a beautiful color palette, enchanting production design, and stellar costume design to perfectly complement Thompson's script and the direction of Kirk Jones.
It is truly love that makes one beautiful, and I can't possibly state it more clearly. I loved this beautiful little film called "Nanny McPhee."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic