The best line in Nanny McPhee is not actually spoken; it’s merely exhaled through Emma Thompson’s prodigious nose, a quietly observant “Hmmm.”
You may not remember Thompson’s nose being particularly notable in such arched-pinky movies as Howard’s End, The Remains of the Day, and various Shakespeare and Jane Austen productions. But here it is bulbous and red, and admirably set off by a couple of plump, hairy warts below, and a caterpillar-like single eyebrow above. In the looks department, Nanny McPhee is no Mary Poppins.
That will be the inevitable comparison, for Nanny McPhee is a nanny who, like Poppins, magically appears in the home of some naughty children. Like Poppins, she effects miraculous changes in their lives and behavior, through a combination of firmness, fearlessness, and a suspicious bottle of medicine administered with a very large spoon. (The Poppins medicine poured out in different colors and flavors; McPhee’s is a gloppy dark color and appears to move around on its own.)
Christianna Brand, author of the “Nurse Matilda” books on which Nanny McPhee is based, didn’t begin to publish her stories until 1964, long after Poppins was a nursery favorite. But the Matilda stories have a decidedly old-fashioned air, because they are based on tales Brand was told by her grandmother. Like many stories spun from air, these are episodic and lacking a tight plotline. Emma Thompson, who stars, also wrote the screenplay, and originated so much new material that all that carries over from the book are the characters, and not even all of them. The uncountable numbers of children in the book’s family (at one point, the screenplay called for 39 children) are whittled down to seven. But the most glaring omission is the child’s mother herself.
Mama is departed, and grieving Papa (an excellent Colin Firth) must remarry within a month, or her aunt (Angela Lansbury, disguised as a turkey) will revoke the allowance that supports the family. Impoverishment will throw him in debtors’ prison, send the older children to workhouses, and the younger to orphanages. But who should he marry? Is it the pretty, modest, but unlettered scullery-maid, Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald)? Or the bosomy, outrageous, thrice-widowed Selma Quickly (Celia Imrie, having the time of her life)?
And will the wicked children contrive to put live worms in the Widow Quickly’s cucumber sandwiches? And will they fill the teapot with frog spawn, and lower a spider onto her hair, and send their father stumbling under a catapult-load of oatmeal? Yes and yes again, and if your children are the kind who laugh convulsively at such scrapes, Nanny McPhee is made for them.
What about the adults who accompany them? Well, as with A Series of Unfortunate Events or any number of other recent big-scale children’s films, adults will find the production values more than satisfying. The sets and set dressing, the costumes and effects, hit high standards. Even with the sound off, this film would be a feast for the eyes. At times it is even more than you want, too noisy for both ear and eye, and the prevalence of claustrophobic close-ups suggest that DVD sales were kept in mind throughout the process. Viewers will feel less bludgeoned when they get to watch it on a smaller screen.
But the same problem persists that afflicts so many recent children’s films, that it has a curious blankness at the heart. It’s all so safe, so formulaic. Nothing seems truly spontaneous or original. The original thing about Nurse Matilda, a.k.a. Nanny McPhee, is that she is very ugly, but that as the children gradually reform, she becomes more beautiful. The warts shrink and disappear, the nose and eyebrow recede, and her figure diminishes from the breadth of a pile of shopping carts to the size of trim Emma Thompson.
In the odd little books, this is likewise odd and whimsical; in a multimillion dollar movie, it becomes serious. What does it mean? Is this a rank example of “lookism,” implying that goodness equals a pretty face? Or are the children learning to see Nanny McPhee’s beauty as they grow in self-control? Is it the law that any children’s movie today has to pack a certified, safe, heavy-handed moral?
That’s a concern about the current genre, not Nanny McPhee alone, which is as delightful a romp as children are likely to have these days (though a few crude words have been predictably shoehorned in). Still, it’s a shame that even the most exuberant and gaudy children’s films today offer meticulous strategizing instead of fun, cautious inoffensiveness instead of heart, and noise instead of wonder. And at these production prices, I guess they have to.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.