Mary Poppins meets Lemony Snicket in Nanny McPhee, adapted by star Emma Thompson from Christianna Brands’s Nurse Matilda stories about a magical nanny who knows just the medicine for a family of exceedingly naughty children, and doesn’t bother about the spoonful of sugar to help it go down.
Colin Firth (Darcy in the 1995 BBC “Pride and Prejudice”) plays Cedric Brown, a widower and hapless father of seven children whose ingenious talent for mischief has driven nearly a score of nannies screaming from the house. Mr. Brown loves his large brood but can neither control them nor afford them, and depends on the largesse of his overbearing Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), whose plans for improving her nephew’s condition include compulsory remarriage and relieving him of one of his children.
Enter Nanny McPhee, whose alarming appearance and unsettling gaze are only the beginning of her bag of tricks. In true Dickinsian fashion, Nanny McPhee knows just how to make the punishment fit the crime, and sets about teaching the children to say please and thank you and to do as they’re told.
So far, so good. Unfortunately the film frays in the second half. A pair of mishandled subplots involving a hideously inappropriate False Bride and a True Bride waiting in the wings don’t work at all; the first isn’t funny, and the second wastes a decent setup by robbing the character of her earlier charm.
Although Mr. Brown does make an effort to stand up to his Aunt Adelaide at a critical juncture, his general diffidence wears thin by the climax, and unlike the children he’s never allowed to improve. He’s a loving father, but never an effective one, and ultimately needs his clever children to run his love life, to the point of proposing both to the girl and to him on behalf of the other. Fancy Darcy as a limp romantic lead!
Despite some disappointing flaws, Thompson’s toothsome performance, the colorful production design and an affirmative portrait of a large family make Nanny McPhee watchable if less than magical family fare.
The second time is the charm with Nanny McPhee Returns, a sequel that improves on the original 2005 Nanny McPhee by more than a nose — even if it’s the bulbous nose of Nanny McPhee herself.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.