Capturing the spirit of Mary Poppins, albeit in the magical nanny’s less forgiving moments, Emma Thompson’s Nanny McPhee comes into the lives of Colin Firth’s Mr Brown and his seven very naughty children…
The widower Mr Brown (Colin Firth) is at the end of his tether. A quiet visit to the funeral parlour for his work has ended in yet another nanny running away from his seven children, convinced that they have eaten the youngest, who is only a baby. Rescuing little Aggie from a pot of vegetables and gravy and asking the remaining six children not to eat turkey legs in baby socks, Mr Brown leaves the house in search of a new nanny but the agency tells him, quite fearfully, that there are no more. He and his children have been through all seventeen nannies on their books and there are no more to be had. Knowing that this will mean the taking away of his children – his aunt will cut off the allowance he receives for his children and it will be the workhouse for them! – he frets but hears a whisper from the letterbox, “The one you need is Nanny McPhee.”
Returning home, Mr Brown sees further mentions of Nanny McPhee in his evening paper and whispers of her name through the house but has no means of contacting her. Such a formality appears to matter not though when, as the children run riot in the kitchen, there is a flash of lightning, a clap of thunder and the shadow of Nanny McPhee falling on the pane of glass in the front door. Making her way in, Nanny McPhee begins her five lessons with the teaching of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and as the days progress, these lessons continue but the better the children behave, the less frightening their nanny looks. But as the sun begins shining again, there’s a dark cloud rolling across the skies as Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) plans a visit with the intention of tearing Mr Brown’s family apart…
As much as there’s clearly some American money in Nanny McPhee it’s so obviously a British film that it’s a wonder it doesn’t open with a shot of a bulldog with the Union Flag in its mouth. As Jennings and Derbyshire might once have said, it’s chock full of beastly pranks. From a tarantula dropped on Celia Imrie’s head and the serving of cucumber-and-earthworm sandwiches to a baby tossed from a catapult into pan of boiling water, Nanny McPhee takes as its inspiration not only Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda books but the stories of Roald Dahl where adults, if not to be feared, are certainly not to be trusted. Certainly, there’s an innocence to the world but it is also a place where wolves, literal or not, lurk in the woods.
The actual world of Nanny McPhee is impressive in the manner of a country mansion, with the rambling Brown home being full of staircases and creaky hiding places and topped by a ghostly old attic. So obviously a place to be treasured, its bricks and mortar do not, however, provide any refuge against the wickedness of the world. No matter how well hidden the children are, it offers no protection from the dreaded Aunt Adelaide, who visits threatening to break up the family, to turn the children to the workhouse and to put Mr Brown in a debtor’s prison. Appealing to the nastiness of childhood – ask any wingless daddy-long-legs for its thoughts on children being adorable – Nanny McPhee has its seven kids fight back against the complexities of adulthood, armed only with toads, catapults, spiders and lumpy porridge. The sight of Imelda Staunton’s bothersome Mrs. Blatherwick will have the inner child cheering in all of us as she’s splattered with eggs.
There is, though, a healthy dollop of Mary Poppins in the Nanny McPhee mix, its spoonful of sugar being the gloopy nastiness to the medicine of lessons having to be learned. Like Mary Poppins, the moral of Nanny McPhee is for a father to listen to his children and to make time for them. The eldest child, Simon (Thomas Sangster), explains this to Nanny McPhee by saying that since their mother died, their father has stopped reading them stories and, allowing this to flow through a child’s logic, it is clear that he no longer cares. With their experiences of stepmothers coming only from fairy tales – a book of them is produced as evidence that all stepmothers are wicked – they have no wish to see their father remarry but as one with the ear both of the children and of Mr Brown, Nanny McPhee balances the wishes of both parties. Her lessons, such as they are, are quite effortless. With a tap of her stick against the floor, the children’s bad behaviour is exaggerated – if they claim to be unwell and to not be able to get out of bed, she will ensure they remain in bed until nightfall – but lessons are learned and by no later than the third day, the children are saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and are tucked up in bed long before it is asked of them.
What makes Nanny McPhee so good is not so much the performances of the children – though they are all very good with the performance of the young Holly Gibbs being the best – but how it combines a romantic story with one of parental responsibility. Both are hinted at throughout the film, with one narrated via the romantic story read by Evangeline (Kelly McDonald) whilst the other is seen in the warmth with which Colin Firth’s Mr Brown has dealings with his children, less so in the beginning than at the film’s end. The resolution to both may be a touch obvious – they do, after all, have nothing more complicated to do that to listen to one another – but it’s led in so effortlessly that it’s churlish to complain. The food fight, the gentle maturing of the children and the final scenes set during a snowfall in August are all expected but are no less charming because of it, largely working because they are so very childish. Only the heavily-rouged pig and the talking donkey are something of a surprise but feel perfectly in tune with the material, raising a laugh as Angela Lansbury peers at them through her thick viewing spectacles.
However, quite the best thing in the film is the cast of grotesques that director Kirk Jones has assembled. From the Imelda Staunton’s ruddy-cheeked Mrs. Blatherwick, Angela Lansbury’s twisted old Aunt Adelaide and Celia Imrie’s Mrs Quickly, who comes complete with a, for children, terrifyingly heaving bosom, the cast of ladies work their characters on the right side of farce. Decent as Colin Firth and Kelly MacDonald are, it’s Patrick Barlow and Derek Jacobi as Mr Jowls and Mr Wheen that impress the most. A pair of screaming undertakers who lie in the coffins to surprise Mr Brown of a morning, they giggle, scream and archly raise their eyebrows at the various events in the film, providing a fitting finale to the cake fight to planting a pastry in each other’s faces. With their disapproving glances to Mr Brown as he speaks of marriage, it’s implied that they may be gay but there are no sexual politics here, simply Derek Jacobi looking as though he’s having the most fun he’s had in a part for years and more than capable of bringing the audience with him.
That sight of a pair of lovable old fools hiding in their coffins is perfect for the material, with it a clear symptom of the Britishness of the film. Occasionally nasty, wickedly funny, romantic and with a healthy disrespect of the landed gentry, Nanny McPhee isn’t quite the equal of Mary Poppins, which, along with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is probably the most magical of live-action children’s films, but it does get very close and is probably the best family fantasy of its type for a very long time indeed.
Nanny McPhee really does look terrific here with bright, rich colours – even quite an ordinary scene like those in the kitchen features a rich array of colourful vegetables, pots and the ruddy cheeks of cook – and a nicely sharp image that captures all of the action and the detail in Nanny McPhee’s face. Where the weather let him down, director Kirk Jones has used CG to bring a snowfall in August but whether it be the bright white of a settling snow or the sunlight that glints through the house, the DVD copes admirably with the film, coming with an excellent transfer.
Similarly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is often superb and there’s clear use of the surround channels throughout, particularly in the whispering of, “The one you need is Nanny McPhee” from within the letterbox, which appears from behind and overhead. This is, though, only the first instance of what becomes a good deal of use of the rear channels but the movement of the sound around the room is always impressive, with the audio track also having plenty of loud thuds with which to put your subwoofer through its paces.
Commentaries: There are two commentaries here, one with Kirk Jones and some of the younger members of the cast and another with producer Lindsay Doran and writer/star Emma Thompson. Regarding one, you know you’re in the presence of children when, within the first ten minutes, someone asks if they can leave to use the toilet but once they begin to relax – and Jones does very well at making them feel relaxed – it warms up to being a very good commentary indeed. As you might expect, Jones has to work to get his points across but listen hard and there’s a small amount of technical chit-chat in there. The other commentary isn’t as much fun but Thompson is, as you might expect, funny and enthusiastic about the material but together with Doran shows a sufficient amount of behind-the-scenes knowledge to make it a worthwhile listen.
Casting The Children (11m40s): There’s the sense that director Kirk Jones is to be trusted in the casting of the children in the film when he says that kids in theatre school can sometimes be too theatrical. Anyone who’s ever seen the little brats around Tottenham Hale who are heading for the Sylvia Young Stage School – the sweatshirts give it away – will understand his concerns. With Jones being interviewed here along with the casting directors and actress Emma Thompson, we also see the casting tapes of six of the seven children as well as the various pre-production outings where the kids bonded in the manner of the family they were to portray.
Village Life (3m52s): Kirk Jones and Michael Howells, the production designer, are interviewed here on their choice of building the outside locations rather than using a location in the English countryside. It’s a lot to do with there being very few areas of the populated countryside that don’t feature mobile phone masks or electricity pylons, which would look rather out of place in such a fantastical film as this.
Nanny McPhee Makeover (5m39s): Funny without being too funny and odd without being distracting, Nanny McPhee‘s make-up is one of the stars of the film and producer Lindsay Doran and Hair & Make-up Designer Peter King are on hand here to talk about the appearance of their titular star and how she was realised through make-up. Emma Thompson, as the one who has to endure the putting on of the Nanny McPhee make-up, is also here showing great patience each morning.
Deleted Scenes (13m00s): There are seven such scenes here, all of which are introduced by Kirk Jones and appear to have been cut for matters of time or to keep the story free of distractions. There is, for example, an alternate opening showing nannies through the ages as well as some David Kelly, who was cut out of the finished film, and Misters Jowls and Wheen, including their discussing whether it is funnier to jump out of a coffin or a cupboard.
How Nanny McPhee Came To Be (7m42s): As something of a making-of, this begins with the origins of the Nanny McPhee story in Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda books before going on to reveal something of the production. Emma Thompson reads from the books – including her suggesting that the film might be called The Bothersome Browns at one point – before the feature goes on to describe the books, their illustrations and how Thompson adapted them for the screen.
Finally, there is a Gag Reel (2m46s) that will be manna from heaven to those who enjoy watching actors stumbling over their lines or hearing children giggling.
Old-fashioned family entertainment that’s without any knowing winks to today’s pop culture, Nanny McPhee is great fun and a film that should appeal to both adults and children without making either group feel excluded. Watched as a family, it had my children crying with laughter twice – once during the cake fight and another as they introduce themselves to Nanny McPhee as being named Bum, Pooh and Knickers McMuffin – whilst my wife shed a tear or two during the swooningly romantic ending, where love falls as surely as did the snow. With plenty of laughs, some childhood smut, a set of decent parts for the adults and a cast of impressive children, Nanny McPhee is a great little film, pleasingly nasty in a way that only British films about childhood are but all the better for it.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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