Nanny McPhee (2005)

2010 #75
Kirk Jones | 94 mins | TV | U / PG

Nanny McPhee is brilliant. But to expand more directly on that sentence would be a conclusion, and so, before that, I present a collection of thoughts on bits I liked. Let’s call it “a review”.

The story is excellent, the kind of tale that imparts moral messages and lessons without you even realising — perfect for kids… and adults. It rattles along throughout, but particularly during the opening, which is surely what you want in a kids’ film: keep their attention! Emma Thompson’s screenplay is a delight. She’s in full control of her material, which allows her to set up rules — such as Nanny McPhee having five lessons to teach — and than almost immediately subvert them — though to tell you how would be to ruin a bit of the fun. Humour is rife, and without even realising it you develop a care for the characters.

Some have criticised the film for having no likeable characters. I can only think they were actually watching something else. Are the children a menace? Certainly — but they clearly have hearts of gold; they’ve been neglected and to an extent rejected; they’re acting up for attention. And they care about each other and always band together — they aren’t squabbling brats, they’re a gang, sticking together to defend themselves from a world that they perceive is out to get them. This is never clearer than when Angela Lansbury’s evil, rich Aunt turns up to take one away, and they do all they can to prevent it. And there are consequences; consequences, in fact, that matter to them, rather than more of the semi-neglectful treatment they’re used to.

And even if you can’t engage with the troublesome children, surely Nanny McPhee coming in to sort them out is therefore a blessing? To say the children are a naughty, nasty rabble but McPhee is an oppressive, overbearing force is just trying to have your cake and eat it — pick a side, or pick both, oh awkward viewer. (And by “viewer” here I mean “one IMDb commenter I read”.)

The cast are exemplary without exception. Thompson, ‘uglying up’ as the titular nanny, conveys all the quiet authority necessary at the start, then softens without ever losing the sense she’s doing what is required; as she states, she never chooses sides. Colin Firth is naturally suited to being a dashing-if-bumbling type, so is also spotless as the father who does care but has forgotten how to show it, with the weight of the realities of the world — otherwise known as Money — pressing down on him. They’re ably supported by an array of British talent: Celia Imrie as a pink, fluffy, and dastardly potential fiancee; Imelda Staunton as a beleaguered ex-army chef; David Jacobi and Patrick Barlow as a Tweedledum and Tweedledee-style pair of comedy funeral attendants; Angela Lansbury as the controlling old Aunt.

Not to mention Kelly MacDonald, the film’s sweetness and light — not like Anne Hathaway’s caricatured (deliberately) White Queen in Tim Burton’s Alice, thank goodness, but more Cinderella-y; the downtrodden but caring servant, who, when given the chance, — well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending. You’ll probably guess it anyway. But that’s not the point; indeed, that’s Good Writing, isn’t it — everything must be seeded well in advance, otherwise it’s all a deus ex machina. But this isn’t a time to rant about storytelling mores.

Even the rabble of children are pitch-perfect. With a cast this young that’s as much the skill of Thompson’s writing and Kirk Jones’ directing as any genuine acting talent, but that doesn’t make it any less of an achievement. As the eldest and therefore leader, Thomas Sangster is superb as ever. He gets the most to do, evolving from the awkwardest of the awkward to reveal intelligence and caring. The scene where he visits his father at work to ask him not to marry is almost heartbreaking, the boy’s well-meaning confused for his previous obstructiveness; and what he does next just shows how much he’s evolved. If there’s one flaw among the children it’s that Eliza Bennett (seen to good effect in Inkheart, shot just a year later) isn’t given much to do as the eldest girl; that’s an inevitable side effect when you’ve got a mass of kids fighting for time alongside several significant adult parts.

Around the large cast, there’s plenty more to see. The primary-coloured sets and costumes work marvellously, a delightful mash between reality (the actual buildings, sets, costumes, etc, all look real and period-accurate) and fantasy (the bright colours!) It could’ve been garish; instead, it’s vibrant. The effects are properly magical. They don’t overwhelm, always serving the story rather than themselves, which is probably what makes them all the more effective. The climax is another highlight — though what occurs at the wedding (oh, it’s obvious there’ll be one) I shan’t spoil by describing.

I confess, Nanny McPhee took me by surprise. It always sounded a bit too much like Mary Poppins; it might be passably nice but little more, I thought. But no. It’s its own film, with its own magical nanny. It’s a children’s film, but with plenty for adults to engage with — assuming it doesn’t simply unleash your inner child, which it may well do. It’s exciting, funny, touching, magical and charming, quite often all at once. It’s brilliant.

5 out of 5

Nanny McPhee placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010, which can be read in full here.

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