Despite its British pedigree, this family-oriented fantasy film from 2005 often succumbs to the Hollywood penchant for manic excess that is supposed to appeal to toddlers with attention deficit disorder. That’s unfortunate, because NANNY MCPHEE actually works quite well when it turns the volume level down and eschews antics in favor of telling the essential story.
The sumptuous look of NANNY MCPHEE creates a Burton-esque atmosphere (thanks to great production design, colorful costumes, and lovely cinematography), but director Kirk Jones struggles to marshal these elements into a coherent vision, proving once again that only Tim Burton should direct Tim Burton movies. A perfect example, the opening sequence is enough to make you want to pull your hair out: a brood of obnoxious orphaned kids send their latest nanny screaming from the house in hysterics by convincing her that they’ve just eaten the youngest member of the family; alarmed, their father (Colin Firth) hurries home from work, only to be relieved when he sees through the ruse. What is meant as a wicked piece of black comedy falls flat for two reasons: first, Jones has failed to create a cinematic world in which we come even close to believing that the kids might actually have eaten a baby, so the sequence comes off as nothing but visual noise; second, we’re given no reason to believe that the adults would believe it. Their gullible reactions might work in a children’s book by Roald Dahl, but transferring that action the screen requires a more deft touch than is on display here.
Fortunately, things pick up considerably once the title character (played by Emma Thompson) arrives. The wart-faced Nanny McPhee, whom the children take for a witch, soon sets about using her magical powers to deliver a series of five lessons. Curiously, although advertised as kids’ film, the plot seems geared to appeal to their parents: the children are such a bunch of awful brats that it is genuinely fun to see them finally being disciplined by a force beyond their control. (Whether this appeals to the children in the audience is another matter.) There is even a wistful sadness about the fun, as McPhee sets the ground rules early on: “When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I must go. It’s rather sad, really, but there it is.”
While Nanny McPhee whips the kids into shape, the plot also revolves around their father’s attempts to remarry (in order to avoid being financially cut off by the aunt who is supporting him). Of course, the children do not like their intended stepmother. This provides an opportunity for them to resort to the same techniques they used to get rid of their previous nannies — a rather unfortunate retrogression that moves the film back into crude slapstick just when it seemed that the story was finding its own funny groove.
As if this were not bad enough, the script even contrives to work an old-fashioned pie-throwing scene into the climax. The desperate desire to be really hysterically funny is all too palpable at this point, but the scene barely generates a chuckle — those Brits may be sophisticated, but they don’t have the kinetic sense of a Laurel and Hardy (or even The Three Stooges) that us necessary to pull this kind of thing off with any sense of style.
Thompson is perfect in the title role, relying on subtle head movements and throat-clearings to convey Nanny McPhee’s reactions. (In a funny recurring bit, she is constantly startling Firth’s character by appearing unexpectedly beside him, offering the blatantly false apology, “I did knock.”) Firth himself does a creditable job as the put-upon father, although the ineffectual character mostly requires him to stammer a lot and not accomplish much of anything. Kelly MacDonald is merely adequate in the Kate Winslett role, but Lansbury does a fine turn in her limited screen time as the wicked near-sighted aunt.
In spite of its missteps, NANNY MCPHEE is funnier than one might have expected from its trailer. The plot threads do weave together into a satisfying conclusion (although the happy ending fails to deliver on the bittersweet promise of McPhee’s terms of employment). The special effects and Hollywood gloss add little, but the title character is strong enough to carry the film across the finish line — maybe not strong enough to win or place, but definitely enough to show. The Nanny McPhee character is certainly amusing enough to support a sequel, but any follow-up would have to de-emphasize the careless mayhem and keep the focus on the story’s stronger elements.
NANNY MCPHEE (2005). Directed by Kirk Jones. Screenplay by Emma Thompson, based on the books by Christianna Brand. Cast: Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Kelly Macdonald, Thomas Sangster, Eliza Bennett, Raphael Coleman, Jennifer Rae Daykin, Samuel Honywood, Holly Gibbs, Angela Lansbury.
Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski