There has been and always been a certain degree of warfare between parents and their children. All too often the children seem to have the upper hand and the parents must resort to sending for reinforcements. On television this aide comes in the form of Jo Frost, the super nanny. In film a far more fantastic approach can be had, enter Nanny McPhee. The film by this name has been released by Universal Pictures in cooperation with Working Title Production, the source of many things British. Eighteenth century Funeral director Cedric Brown (Colin Firth) has recently found himself on the wrong side of his profession when his wife passes away leaving him to care for their seven children. To make matters worse if Brown does not marry within a month his late wife’s Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) will cut off his direly needed allowance. The only person that Brown can think of is the rather plump Mrs. Selma Quickly (Celia Imrie). Without this added source of income Brown would be forced to do the unimaginable, break his family apart. Brown, for all his good intentions, is unable to manage the brood alone and turns to hiring a nanny to oversee the brood. After seventeen nannies succumb to the devilish machinations of the children he receives a mysterious note stating "What you need is Nanny McPhee." When the new nanny appears on the doorstep of the Brown household she may be a figurative sight for sore eyes to the father but literally she is not the best looking woman ever to grace the movie screen. McPhee (Emma Thompson) has a wart that seems to force you to look at it and a monobrow that streak above her wise and knowing eyes. With a tap of her cane sparks fly out and the children march into the kitchen to free the cook, Mrs. Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton) who has been tied to the table. With considerable work and a good deal of magical help Nanny McPhee starts to whip the children into shape. They begin to dress when told; eat like civilized people and most amazing of all treat people with some respect. With each lesson a change slowly comes over Nanny. A wart disappears, a blemish fades, her teeth straighten and her inner beauty slowing is made manifest with her outer appearance. One by one McPhee wins over the children until only the eldest, Simon (Thomas Sangster), remains adversarial. Of course, since this is primarily a fable for children even his rebellious continence warns to the Nanny. Also in the mix is the beautiful scullery maid, Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald). She may be beneath his station she loves the children and also fondly regarded by Brown and the kids. Considering Mr. Brown’s dilemma concerning marriage it should be a little obvious just where the story will end up.
The story is loosely based on the 1960’s children’s classic Christianna Brand's "Nurse Matilda" books. The screenplay was penned by the star, Emma Thompson, who won the 1996 screenplay Oscar for her rendition of Sense and Sensibility. Thompson, as writer, does manage to capture the magic of Brand’s novels although by most accounts has taken some liberties in bring it to the screen. There is a sense of wonder about the film that can even pull in the adults. While many may see this as just a variation on the Mary Poppins story it does have a bit more of a darker feel to it. This film combines a mixture of slapstick comedy and special effects to transport the audience into this magical world. You will need to do a lot of suspension of belief to enjoy the movie but the film makes it easy to just sit back and forget reality for awhile. There is nothing wrong with a good old fashion fairy tale and Nanny McPhee demonstrates that a family friendly flick can be entertaining to all ages.
There seems to be a trend lately for attractive actresses to take on roles that hide their looks under a ton of heavy, ugly makeup. Emma Thompson tosses all possible vanity to the winds with the special makeup she had to endure for this film. The fact that she can use her face so creatively under all that plastic is simply amazing in itself. In this role Thompson has the opportunity to run the gambit from stern nanny to slowly revealing a softer, more caring side. Thompson takes on this role with the same dedication and professionalism as she has with all her characters, a mark of a true professional. Colin Firth is one of the better actors when considering roles in British romantic comedies as evident by his roles in flicks such as Bridget Jones. Here his portrayal of the belabored Mr. Brown is fun to watch. Sure, we all know that in a film like this all will be right with the world before the ending credits role but Firth invokes empathy with the audience help us to appreciate his plight and care about Brown. While younger audiences may think of Angela Lansbury only as the lead in Murder She Wrote, she is one of the best character actresses ever to step before a camera or on stage. She has such familiarity with acting that she makes everything looks easy. I do enjoy it when she gets a chance to move away from likeable roles and play someone as unpleasant as Great Aunt Adelaide. She seems to delight in her wickedness to the delight of the audience.
Universal has provided a DVD that the whole family will appreciate. The technical specifications are excellent. While there are both pan & scan and widescreen versions stay with the original aspect ratio. Each frame is filled with detail that this video transfer brings home with clarity, a true to life color balance and right on contrast. The Dolby 5.1 audio will enfold you like a London fog. While the rear speakers are used mostly to provide ambience there are a few audio surprises to be heard. Universal has really done well with the extras provided. There is a round robin audio commentary with director Kirk Jones and the children from the film. He has a natural connection with the kids that comes across as they reminisce about making the film. There is also a second commentary with Emma Thompson and Producer Lindsay Doran that provides a little backstage gossip that was fun to listen to. Of course there is a special featurette about the makeup Ms Thompson had to wear to bring her character to life. There is a featurette about the trials and tribulations of cast the group of children making sure they could work well with each other as well as the adults. Rounding things out is a gag reel that shows just how much fun these serious British actors can have between takes and a few deleted scenes. While admittedly the film has some flaws it is a worthy film for your collection, one that the whole family will see as a favorite.