Judge Paul Pritchard found an effective way of ridding himself of unwanted nannies, and he's now serving a life sentence for it.
"There is something you should understand about the way I work. When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go. It's rather sad, really, but there it is."
Emma Thompson (The Remains of the Day) followed her Academy Award winning screenplay for Sense and Sensibility with this charming adaptation of Christianna Brand's 1964 book Nurse Matilida. Filtering the Mary Poppins formula through something a little darker, Nanny McPhee offers good old fashioned family entertainment, warts and all.
Facts of the Case
Mr. Brown (Colin Firth, Love Actually) finds himself a widower with seven children, aged between 1 and 11 years old. Struggling to cope with such a demanding and unruly brood, Mr. Brown turns to the services of a nanny agency. Regrettably, he quickly learns his children are not keen on the idea, and do their utmost to rid themselves of her. So successful are they, that after having driven out 17 nannies, the agency refuses to send anymore.
Thankfully, help is at hand, when a mysterious voice urges Mr. Brown to hire Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson).
From it's melancholic opening lines—which closely mirror Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events—to the crowd pleasing denouement, Nanny McPhee is great entertainment. Though nothing overly original or particularly striking happens during its 99-minute running time, the unfolding story is so well told it's hard to care.
Initially, the obvious comparisons to Mary Poppins bear out, with a mysterious nanny coming to the rescue of a family in need. But where Nanny Mcphee differs is in its portrayal of the children as absolute brats, as opposed to the angelic darlings Julie Andrews had to contend with. Children watching Nanny McPhee should have a great time, as these reprobates torment their father, while scaring the bejesus out of their seventeenth nanny with a quite brilliant ruse—claiming to have eaten their youngest sibling. Through a combination of magic and hard-line discipline, Nanny McPhee sets out to teach the children the five lessons that will lead to their family's salvation; that is, until the plot throws in the threat of Adelaide Smith (Angela Lansbury, Murder, She Wrote), the aunt of Mr. Brown's late wife. Having supported the family financially for some time, the elderly matriarch stipulates that funding will cease unless Mr. Brown marries before the end of the month.
Thus, the film proceeds on two fronts: the first sees Nanny McPhee attempt to tame Mr. Brown's wild offspring, while the second sees Mr. Brown attempt to find a wife. Both are rife with oddball characters and comic situations sure to delight families. The children—at the center of most of the film's comic moments—are a joy to watch, especially some of their more devious antics. In one scene, the children are ordered to put on their best clothes for the visit of Aunt Adelaide. Dead set against the idea, the children curiously agree, only to reveal they'll be putting them on their pig. Each strand of the story heavily focuses on the importance of one's family. There's a particularly poignant scene where, having kept the truth from his children about the dire situation the family is in, Mr. Brown finally explains what will happen should he not find a wife. Coming shortly after another bout of high jinks, the revelation is all the more powerful and sobering; nicely tying up the two plots as the film heads towards its finale.
Thompson's screenplay contains just the right blend of drama, comedy and emotion. Dialogue is at times earnest ("I can't support my own family. I never have been able to."), knowingly sentimental ("You are the end of the story."), and just plain fun ("Pleased to make your acquaintance, I'm Oglinton Fartworthy. That's F-A-R-T, Fartworthy."). Thompson, who takes the lead role, also ensures that the titular character doesn't take center stage. Rather, Nanny McPhee flits in and out when needed; retaining her mysteriousness, while leaving the trials and tribulations of the Brown family as the main focus.
Colin Firth, though hardly needing to push himself, offers a performance that combines moments of heartfelt emotion with what can only be described as borderline slapstick. Emma Thompson brings a healthy dollop of sinister to her role; a darkness that gradually recedes throughout the movie. The support cast is where Nanny McPhee really shines. With the likes of Derek Jacobi (Hamlet), Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting), Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), and Angela Landsbury, the ensemble is rich with talent and experience. The children are all note-perfect, with Thomas Sangster following up his role in Love Actually with another solid performance. Stealing almost every scene she is in, however, is Celia Imrie (Calendar Girls) as the repugnant Mrs. Quickly. A vile, odious creature, children should enjoy rooting against her.
Universal has ensured Nanny McPhee comes to Blu-ray with an excellent transfer. The 2.35:1 1080p presentation is never less than first-rate, with numerous standout moments. Unlike action-packed blockbusters, Nanny McPhee contains little in the way of eye-catching pyrotechnics; instead the transfer dazzles with a remarkable level of fine detail and vibrant color reproduction. The audio is just as impressive. Individual sounds are clear and easily distinguishable from the film's score. Dialogue is crisp, while the "boom" of Nanny McPhee's stick is almost thunderous.
The Blu-ray release also contains a good set of supplemental materials, which have been lifted wholesale from the previous DVD release. The feature revealing the makeup work employed to transform Thompson into the hideous Nanny McPhee is especially worth watching, while the commentary track offers an insightful look behind-the-scenes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Yes, Nanny McPhee is predictable; there's no denying the fact. Most viewers will be certain of the ending before the opening act closes, robbing the plot of any great surprises. And though this may pose a problem for adults, I can say from experience that children will thoroughly enjoy the film. Never forget that a child of 10 doesn't possess the decades worth of film knowledge of a thirty-something, so the more formulaic elements simply wash over them. Hey, it's no more predictable than Lord of the Rings, and the last time I checked that trilogy had done pretty well for itself.
Parents and children alike should find plenty to enjoy in Nanny McPhee. Kids should get a kick out of the naughty behavior on display (not to mention a rather well-dressed donkey), while adults will appreciate the film's focus on the importance of family and good manners.
One final note: While I don't want to give too much away, there's quite a lovely moment in the sequel, Nanny Mcphee Returns (aka Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang) that harkens back to this film.
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