That Nanny McPhee is quite the character. This, ultimately, is the point of Emma Thompson's screenplay for Nanny McPhee, a loose adaptation of the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand that approaches the titular character as a vessel for the development of the other characters. Specifically, the character in question is, indeed, a nanny to children who need it. This might sound familiar to those who have seen 1964's Mary Poppins, although at least that film treated its titular character as a character of her own accord.
The odd thing about Nanny McPhee as a character here, beyond the fact that she acts as a vessel, is that she is played by Thompson herself. The actress's performance is solid, performing through makeup that might have hindered a lesser one who merely embraced the caricature of the stern nanny with magical powers, but her writing of her own character and director Kirk Jones' treatment (somewhere between twee and treacly) are limited and limiting. She's here to teach these children five lessons, and that, says the screenwriter and director, is enough to be going on with. The problem, predictable though it might be, is that it is not nearly enough to sustain this story.
That story gets off to a strong start. It regards the well-being of the Brown family, whose matriarch has just recently passed away. Father Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) is overworked, leaving much of his parenting to the serving staff, which includes his personal servant Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald) and his cook Mrs. Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton). His children (most of whom are interchangeable, apart from the eldest, Simon, played by Thomas Sangster) have somehow rid of each nanny their father has attempted to hire. Mr. Brown's great-aunt Adelaide's (Angela Lansbury, a scene-stealer) solution is to find for himself a wife and for the children a mother.
That solution might very well present itself in the form of Mrs. Quickly (Celia Imrie), a remarkably self-absorbed nuisance who cares more about the large pot of money that Adelaide will pay upon Mr. Brown's fulfillment of the marriage than about the well-being of her future step-children. Enter Nanny McPhee, whose unassuming demeanor - a face defined by a bulbous nose, a jutting tooth, and two warts - and stern resolve - the five lessons are ones of unflinching rigidness in the practice of honing respect for authority in those reckless kids - might actually teach the adults something, too.
There is no tangible bridge between the lessons to be taught by Nanny McPhee and the focus of the narrative as it surrounds the adults here, which bizarrely climaxes with a food fight. Yes, a food fight is positioned at the end of this movie to resolve its central conflict, and if that sounds too bizarre to believe, the proof is in the flowery and anticlimactic denouement, which turns on the treacle beyond the point of reasonable return. Nanny McPhee can't decide how to apply its message to its characters, which means it's a fable and a vague one.
Emma Thompson (Nanny McPhee), Colin Firth (Mr. Brown), Kelly Macdonald (Evangeline), Thomas Sangster (Simon), Eliza Bennett (Tora), Raphael Coleman (Eric), Samuel Honeywood (Sebastian).
Directed by Kirk Jones and written by Emma Thompson, based on the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand.
Rated PG (mild thematic elements, rude humor, brief language).
Released on January 27, 2006.