"When you need me, but do not want me, then I will stay. When you want me, but do not need me, then I have to go."
"Nanny McPhee", the new film written by and starring Emma Thompson, and the producers of "Love Actually" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral", is a delightful film, suitable for the entire family. Even if you don't have kids, this film should help bring back memories of all of the great children's books you read and loved.
Cedric Brown (Colin Firth, "Love Actually"), the hapless father of seven children and a recent widower finds his family falling apart. Unable to spend much time at home, he works long hours trying to keep his funeral parlor afloat, leaving the children in the care of nannies, a scullery maid, Evangeline (Kelly McDonald, "Love Actually") and a cook (Imelda Staunton, "Vera Drake"). The children, lead by Simon (Thomas Sangster, "Love Actually"), are an unruly bunch and take great pride in their ability in scaring all of the nannies away. They realize they have set a new record. It only took 3 hours and 14 minutes to get rid of Nanny #17. Distraught, Cedric finds that the Village Nanny agency will no longer help him. Then, Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), a snaggle-toothed, overweight woman with two moles on her face, shows up at the door. She immediately begins to teach the children how to behave, using a mixture of magic, common-sense and insight. Soon, Great Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) arrives and insists that Cedric marry again, or she will no longer provide support to the family. It is up to the children and Nanny McPhee to make things right.
Emma Thompson has proven she has a great deal of skill writing screenplays. First, the adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility" and now "Nanny McPhee". Blending the best elements and ideas from successful family films, without a huge amount of treacle or gaggles of children running wild, Thompson has created a delightful story sure to appeal to young and old. Parents should run to the closest theater playing this film, with or without their children, steering clear of films like "Cheaper by the Dozen". Set in an indeterminate time, I am going to guess the early 1900s, due to the lack of telephones, televisions and radios, and the clothing; the film is set in a sleepy country village in England. The family home, a rambling Victorian with many gables, has seen better days, is filled with bright colors peeling in many places, mismatched furniture and toys, is very messy, but it feels like home. The time and place add immeasurably to the fanciful nature of the film and help to transport us to this fantasy world.
Emma Thompson is also very good as the mysterious Nanny McPhee. Comparisons to "Mary Poppins" will be inevitable, but Thompson makes this character slightly unique by adding humor to the role. She is magical and pops up to address other characters with no notice, driving poor Mr. Brown (Firth) a little batty. Startling him, she always apologizes by saying "I did knock", which soon becomes a funny joke. She is also stern, but not mean, and unwilling to put up with any of the children's shenanigans. Of course, she is there to teach the children how to behave, they are an extremely unruly group, and she does this with a mixture of insight, kindness and tough love. When the children claim to have the measles, she soon serves them a viscous "Measles Medicine" which is sure to cure them of playing sick in the future. Early on, she announces to Mr. Brown that she has five lessons to teach the children, if they should learn more that is up to them. Clearly, they learn a lot more.
Colin Firth is equally amusing as the battle weary father. He is funny at times, but his role is more the romantic, as he has to find a woman to marry, to ensure that they continue to receive Aunt Adelaide's money. Initially, he decides upon Selma Quickly (Celia Imrie), the widow of one of his clients, and is prepared to go through with the marriage to this hideous woman, until the children come to the rescue. Colin Firth has long played the dashing romantic lead and this persona works well here. When he finds the situation slipping out of his control, his haggard nature is funnier because Firth is usually a romantic lead. To watch this dashing figure deal with a gaggle of unruly children, yet also pine for his lost wife, Firth is extremely effective making us feel for his character.
Kelly McDonald is also quite good as Evangeline, the young woman who works for the family, but also cares for the children and cares for Mr. Brown as well. Derek Jacobi, Imelda Staunton and Angela Lansbury round out the cast of amusing characters.
Of the children, the most notable is Simon, played by Thomas Sangster (Liam Neeson's son in "Love Actually"). He is quite good at leading the unruly children into mischief. He also, ultimately, becomes the one who will make the choice to make everything right again.
"Nanny McPhee" is like watching a great children's book come to life. The time, setting and feel of everything in the film help to make the magical elements believable and this helps to make everything more enjoyable and interesting. The story is predictable, you will probably be able to guess the final outcome, but "Nanny" takes us on an unpredictable journey to this conclusion.
The children in "Nanny" are as destructive as the kids in "Cheaper by the Dozen", and other films of that nature, but these children learn real lessons, and help make real changes in their life. It seems more real, which given the fantasy elements of the film, is remarkable. Everything in "Cheaper" is just so phony and unnatural it resembles a big cartoon and any lessons those children might learn seem superficial. Nanny McPhee teaches them real lessons, lessons they will need in life, lessons that will make a difference in their life.
When Nanny McPhee first meets Mr. Brown and the children, she tells them "When you need me, but do not want me, then I will stay. When you want me, but do not need me, then I have to go". Well, Nanny McPhee, we need you. We need you. Don't go. Tell us more stories. Save our children from endless hours of dreck and mindless pabulum. Save them from the inevitable "Cheaper by the Dozen 3" and "Yours, Mine and Ours 2".