Friday, January 27, 2006

Nanny McPhee

Cedric Brown (Colin Firth) is a widower with seven children somewhere in late 18th century England. By trade he is an undertaker who needs financial help from his wife’s great aunt Matilda (Angela Lansbury) to keep up the household. To continue receiving this support Matilda tells him he must marry within a month.

The children, led by the eldest, Simon (Thomas Sangster) are hellions. To get their father’s attention they torment every nanny he hires. They have just got rid of the 16th or 17th when Cedric finds out that there are no more nannies to be had. As he converses with his deceased wife’s empty pink chair, he hears a voice: you need Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson). She appears and moves in just in time to catch the kids tearing the kitchen apart – a place they are forbidden to go. The cook, Mrs. Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton), has Mr. Brown’s promise they will not enter the kitchen. But Brown is powerless to do almost anything. The illiterate scullery maid, Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), feels sorry for him.

Nanny McPhee has warts, a prominent front tooth, and the children think she’s a witch. But when she raps her stick on the floor, the kids clean up the kitchen in record time and she marches them to bed.

Nanny tells them she has five lessons to teach them and when they don’t want her but need her she will be there; when they want her but don’t need her, she will be gone. Every time the children learn a lesson, something inexplicably magical happens, but I can’t tell you what – you have to see the film for yourself.

Besides acting in the lead role, Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay, based on the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand (I am not familiar with these.)  At first I thought this was going to be a Mary Poppins story, then I thought of the Sound of Music, then Cheaper by the Dozen and Yours, and Mine and Ours. I am not sure why these “family movies” must have food fights in them, but the kids in the audience seem to relish them. Of course, there are some Cinderella/fairy godmother elements as well.

The two undertaker assistants played by Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow didn’t quite work for me, and sometimes I got the impression the story was rather pasted together, albeit with polyester colors and much whimsy. It was good to see Angela Lansbury in a film again. Imelda Staunton as the cook is very good.

Nanny McPhee reminded me of the story books my mother had from her childhood, those morality tales that educators dislike so much – at first. If you get up on the wrong side of the bed, bad things will happen to you because you are so grumpy. But Nanny teaches the children about consequences with care and sensitivity and everything turns out all right – but you knew that, didn’t you?

When I left the screening I rode in the elevator to the garage with two young boys ( 8 or 9 years old) and their parents. The kids were chatting and trying to remember all the five lessons. The mom looked at me as if to say, “Go figure; they liked it!”

Sounds like a good endorsement to me, Nanny McPhee~

And about that magical thing that happens when the kids learn a lesson - try to figure out the connection between the lesson and the magic...

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