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Nanny McPhee
cast: Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury, Kelly Macdonald and Imelda Staunton

director: Kirk Jones

94 minutes (U) 2005 widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 2/10
reviewed by Donald Morefield
Anyone remember that gifted and delightfully witty, English actress, Emma Thompson? You know the one... She made a bunch of - occasionally acclaimed and very British - films back in the 1990s... used to flit between art house stuff and Hollywood with precious little effort... writes for TV and the big screen, and was married to Kenneth Branagh for a few years. Now she's got a drunk's nose, a couple of fat hairy warts, eyebrows that meet in the middle, and a bucktooth that would make even Bugs Bunny jealous. Now she talks softly and carries a big stick. She's nanny McPhee.

By coincidence, Nanny McPhee is a fairy tale, adapted by Thompson from the works of Christianna Brand. It's about a kindly witch and government appointed nanny who is called upon - somewhat mysteriously, I might add - to reform and thereby re-educate the seven unruly kids of widower and undertaker, Mr Brown (Colin Firth). Rumours that Ms McPhee is the guiding light behind New Labour's 'Respect Squad' are unfounded, though Tony Blair would be happy to recruit her, if only the miracle-working nanny didn't insist on Sunday afternoons off - as part of her usual employment terms.

The children (three boys, and four girls including one baby) create high-spirited mayhem in the Brown household, much to the consternation of blustering cook Mrs Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton) and devoted scullery maid Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald). Their last nanny - actually the 17th battleaxe to hold the post, quit in a screaming fit when she finds Brown's brats have eaten the baby... I was amused to note how this film was rated PG by the MPAA, but gets a U certificate from the BBFC. Of the assorted youngsters, only the precocious Simon (Thomas Sangster) makes an impression as a character, especially when he's singled out for attention by McPhee, and you might well have trouble remembering the names of the other children, despite this obviously being a children's movie about wilful children. In that regard, at least, it compares unfavourably to the wonderful Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events. So, if you're looking for a movie with real 'kiddie appeal', I'd suggest renting or buying that endearingly mad film, not this one.

Angela Lansbury is outstanding as the faintly sinister Aunt Adelaide, Celia Imrie is aptly obnoxious as the grasping Mrs Quickly while, as the angelic Evangeline, Kelly Macdonald (who played Peter Pan in Finding Neverland) is simply a handy 'prop' for dressing the domestic and garden party scenes when she's supposed to be a pivotal 'feminine' character. Overall, Kirk Jones' Nanny McPhee is shallow, corny, entirely manipulative, and wholly humourless filmmaking - where heroes lack warmth and the absence of a proper villain means that disobedient children pose the only moments of conflict in the storyline. With cod-Victoriana picture-book designs, and a risibly conservative checklist morality, it's bereft of genuinely macabre frissons that are essential for any successful period fantasy adventure.

My science fictional twin was cordially invited by the producers to visit the set of Nanny McPhee during principal photography. His report includes a description of how much directorial coaxing was necessary to get the disinterested underage cast to emote. One scene, shot without dialogue, required a great deal of intense facial expression. 'Oh, look. The little dear is thinking... and furiously, so!' noted my SF twin. 'And the boy is trying hard, too.' Teenagers like Sangster (a survivor of Richard Curtis' Love, Actually) might well have preferred a more experienced director, one with a firm grasp of rudimentary filmmaking techniques - such as presenting drama in a manner capable of holding viewers' attention for longer than five seconds at a time. They say writing good fiction for younger readers is one of the hardest jobs in all literature. I'm sure that similar, or more stringent, challenges apply to cinema. It's a shame that a veteran like Thompson (giving a severely restrained performance throughout) agreed to this project without an imaginative or vaguely competent director attached to it.

DVD bonus material includes three self-explanatory featurettes: Nanny McPhee Makeover (shall I giveaway the ending? No, I can't be bothered), Casting The Children (I'd suggest in sacks of stones into the river, but I might get into trouble), How Nanny McPhee Came To Be (was Thompson short of cash, eh?), plus deleted scenes, and a gag reel.
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