Nanny McPhee Returns
- Directed by Susannah White
- Written by Emma Thompson
- Starring Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal
With her fuzzy unibrow, snaggletooth and hairy chin wart, Nanny McPhee looks like a candidate for a reality makeover show. Her homeliness is obviously dear to Emma Thompson, who both plays the character and wrote the script for Nanny McPhee Returns and its hit 2005 predecessor. In a world of shiny 3-D plastic stars, Nanny McPhee (based on Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda books) stands out as a resolute non-conformist. You have to admire her pluck, if not her tweezing.
Set in the English countryside during the Second World War, the new movie introduces harried mom Isabel Green (American Maggie Gyllenhaal, sounding persuasively English) as the mother of three lovely but unruly children, oldest boy Norman (Asa Butterfield), middle child Megsie (Lil Woods) and little Vincent (Oscar Steer). She's trying to maintain a dilapidated farm, and keep it from the predations of their dissolute uncle Phil (Rhys Ifans). The children are soon joined by her sister's two pampered city brats - Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) - sent from London to avoid the Blitz. The city kids are disgusted by the country squalor and prevalence of barnyard poo.
When the cousins' squabbling threatens to turn the household to chaos one night, the magical Nanny McPhee mysteriously arrives at the door, claiming she's been "deployed" by the government. She carries a big black stick and has unenlightened, if effective, methods that establish respectful order. (There's something of Margaret Thatcher in her obedience-training methods.)
The movie progresses through Isabel's continued attempts to save the family farm, while Nanny McPhee guides the children through a series of life lessons ("how to share," how to help" "how to be brave") to prepare them to be a better family.
Following the template of the original film, the production team has found various opportunities to include CGI animals doing unlikely stunts. A synchronized swimming team of piglets is the highlight. Least convincing is a somewhat unfinished-looking baby elephant, who wanders into the farmhouse.
As is par for the course with British films, acting comes first, with entertaining performance from Ifans as the conniving Uncle Phil and Maggie Smith making big messes as a dotty shopkeeper. Ralph Fiennes also pops up briefly as the cold-fish father of the city cousins. Among the children, Vlahos, who plays the foppish Cyril, is the standout, with the comic timing of a pint-sized Stephen Fry.
Ultimately, the performances carry the film. Thompson's script is fast-paced but depends on a series of contrived emergencies, culminating in a dilemma with an unexploded bomb (the movie's English title for the movie is Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang). Susannah White's choppy direction (she previously did television adaptations of Bleak House and Jane Eyre) doesn't help, nor do the swells of music from James Newton Howard's score, which are over-emphatic in punching home the emotional moments.
The no-nonsense bottom line? Kids should revel in the warts, choreographed pigs and animal poo. Their parents will endure these things stoically and occasionally chuckle, which seems the traditional English thing to do.