Nanny McPheeHow It Rates: ***
Starring: Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury
Red Flags: Some mild references to gas and some comic grossness
Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone kicked open the door to a new genre of family film: the comic-fantasy costume drama -- refined for the adults and yet visually dazzling and accessible for the kids. Nanny McPhee would have never existed had it not been for Potter's success. It is mannered yet naughty, proper yet gross, and very, very British. Credit Emma Thompson, who adapted the screenplay from the "Nurse Matilda" books of Christianna Brand. The film has an easily deduced Francis Movie Equation: Mary Poppins + Harry Potter + Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events / Sense & Sensiblity.
The film plunges us into early 19th-Century England and a beautiful countryside estate, where the seven obnoxious children of widower mortician Cedric Brown (Firth) have managed to drive out all 17 nannies sent to care for them. The nanny agency is fresh out. Their father -- who spends more time with the dead than his children and talks to his dead wife's empty chair -- needs to find someone else fast. He also needs a new wife, or his uptight great aunt (Lansbury) will cut him off from the money he and the children need to maintain their standard of living it up. A scullery maid, Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), observes all this with sympathy. She seems to be the only person who really connects with the children.
Cedric keeps hearing about a "Nanny McPhee." Hiring her is right difficult, mind you. She doesn't seem to work for any agency, and the kids cut her address out of the paper. But one night, McPhee (Thompson) mysteriously shows up at the door, an ugly Mary Poppins, warts and all. Maybe she works for the Wicked Witch of the West. Is she a good witch or a bad witch? Both, actually. All it takes is a tap of her magic staff to start the kids on the road to mending her ways. McPhee says she has five lessons to teach, and as the kids learn, it's not just their behavior that will start looking better... hint, hint.
Thompson gives her character dark and laconic charm, doing little more than grunting at times as she observes the family she is minding. It's fun just to watch McPhee disappear and reappear at will with the mannered explanation, "I did knock." But also charming is Lansbury, the snooty, snobby aunt who puts the crust in upper crust. Also enjoyable: Celia Imrie as Selma Quickley, the gaudy widow who is about to become the children's new stepmother, something that never amounts to anything good in every fairy tale we've been told.
And that's just what Nanny McPhee is: a fairy tale. It plays out like a bedtime story, full of color, morals, and naughty children who eventually learn the consequences of their actions. Emotionally, it is not deep outside of its happy ending. The film is so busy telling its story it doesn't give its characters much depth. Maybe it rips too much style from Mary Poppins.
Oh come now. You didn't worry about character development when you were snuggled up in bed, did you?