Nanny McPhee

Feb 1, 2006 at 12:00 am

Imagine the babysitter you dreaded, only far more hideous to behold and possessing magical powers to use against you. This is no dream nanny conjured up from children's longings for someone sweet and kind to tuck them in at night.

Nanny McPhee is the anti-Mary Poppins. Forget spoonfuls of sugar; this nanny's preferred method of discipline includes doling out spoonfuls of icky, black, bubbling crude to her charges, and casting a spell that renders them unable to move from their beds (their punishment for not getting up on time and faking sick).

Emma Thompson clearly relishes every snaggle-toothed moment as McPhee. The esteemed actress also wrote the script, inspired by the 1960s series of Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand. Obviously, "nurse" sounds too clinical and "Matilda" sounds too Roald Dahl, so Thompson took several liberties with the original tale. She even whittles down the number of kids from 35 to seven, and widows their poor father, undertaker Cedric Brown (Colin Firth).

Lest you rush to judge this movie as merely a star's pet project, note that Thompson has two Oscars, and one of those is for penning the screen adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. While she may not write often, she does write well.

In Thompson's telling, McPhee mysteriously arrives at the Brown home at a time when the children, an unruly but clever bunch, are at the height of their mischief, terrorizing the servants and ignoring their father's weak attempts at discipline. With a couple taps of her walking stick, the super nanny whips the home into order, taming the wild bunch. Meanwhile, Mr. Brown is making desperate and clumsy attempts to find a bride so that he might appease the family's benefactor, Great Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury). The children turn to McPhee to help them steer their dad to the right match.

Lansbury is wonderfully villainous as the crusty, loony old aunt. Firth, who ties Hugh Grant for fumbling British romantic leads, is in trademark form as the father. The kids are satisfactory but not particularly memorable, with only Thomas Sangster (who, like Firth and Thompson, was in Love Actually) standing out from the precocious pack.

McPhee is really Thompson's show, though. Unlike the first Harry Potter movie, which didn't fully capture the awe Harry's magical world should inspire, with McPhee, Thompson and director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) recognize their young audiences should be filled with wonder as the nanny's secret powers are revealed. You can tell the adults are having a blast telling this story; it's evident in everything from the movie's look — hobbit-hole charm meets Tim Burton macabre — to Thompson's single, decaying, oversized front tooth.

With Nanny McPhee, Thompson finds the right balance of mystery, mischief and charm, making for a dark, enchanting and wickedly fun fairy tale.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].