How fantastic it would be if the nanny got prettier the nicer her charges acted. You would start out with the old hag from Don’t Tell Mom, the Babysitter’s Dead, and end up with Alicia Silverstone, from The Babysitter. What better incentive for good behavior? Unfortunately, such characters are relegated to fairy-tales and storybooks. However, Nanny Mcphee, a new film directed by Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) and adapted by Emma Thompson, gives audiences an opportunity to forget about the evil sitters of their own realities, and peek at the world of the Brown family and its eccentric caretaker.
Nanny McPhee is the story of the unruly Brown children: Aggie, Sebastien, Christianna, Lily, Eric, Tora, and Oglington Fartworthy, I mean Simon (Thomas Sangster). After the sudden death of their mother during Aggie’s birth, the children feel abandoned as their father struggles to keep the family financially stable. The children act out by scaring away every governess their father hires, until Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), a frightfully peculiar person appears on their doorstep and tortures the children into behaving. Nanny 911 for the fairy-tale world.
Thompson is a sight with a blotchy, bulbous nose, a hairy caterpillar standing in for her eyebrows, a snaggletooth capable of opening a can of beans, and two black warts with unsightly hairs sprouting out the middle. She bares a striking resemblance to actor Pete Postlethwaite. As the children learn the lessons she has to teach them, her gruesomeness melts away.
The film is based upon Nurse Matilda, written by Christianna Brand in the sixties, exhumed from the tomb of pre-Harry Potter novels such as the original, hard-nosed Mary Poppins and the devious, devilish tales of Roald Dahl. The film does an admirable job of transferring the tale from pages to projector without losing the fantastical quality that only British children’s novels seem to possess.
The most striking ingredients of this imaginative film are the colors used in the set décor, costumes, and characters’ physical features. Each set of characters are represented by their own color schemes. The members of the family, led by their widower father, Cedric, played by Colin Firth, are decked out with rich shades of green, blue, and red. Their clothes, which in typical cartoonish fashion rarely changed except for special occasions, are hunter green, avacado, azure, claret, or auburn, while their Sunday bests are pure white. The Brown’s cook (Imelda Staunton) sports bright red hair, sticking out at impossible angles, mirroring her excitability and flaming temper, and the children’s cold, impersonal great-aunt (Angela Landsbury) wears icy blue tresses.
There is a particular design for each room in the Brown home, all incorporating the family colors. In Cedric’s study, the wall behind his desk is painted lime green. His and his late wife’s chairs stand before the fireplace, one a Charles II armchair, embroidered in forest green, and the other a wingback, upholstered in soft burgundy, with gold fringe around the legs. The exaggerated color schemes and furnishings add to the fairy-tale quality of the film.
The acting in the film is especially commendable. Each child in the film manages to emit their own personality, even some with minimum amounts of lines. Amid films like Kicking and Screaming or The Bad News Bears and Nanny McPhee or Peter Pan, there is a stark contrast in the way the child actors are written for and directed.
Americans are harsh and abrasive in their delivery. Their lines are usually so mature and arrogant that they seem awkward acting the parts. Dakota Fanning, for instance, is always cast in insipid roles, where she always knows better than the adults around her. British child actors, such as Thomas Sangster, who plays the eldest Brown child, are given far more realistic lines and direction. They seem awkward when they are meant to seem awkward, not when they are supposed to be lecturing their parents or cursing out a fellow student. In one scene in Nanny McPhee, Sangster is urged by his siblings to confront their father about whether he is planning to remarry. He holds himself perfectly as he acts with Firth, just as a young child would when put in such a situation, slouched and shy, afraid of saying the wrong thing.
While the focus of the film is on the children, the adults get their share of screen time. Firth is especially gleaming, as the doting but distant father. Cedric spends much of his time working as an undertaker, worrying about how to keep out of debtors’ prison while holding his family together. Every decision he makes is after lengthy deliberation as to what is best for his children, and Firth manages to make the anxiety and worry clear in his character. It is a different role than he’s known for: Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, and his reincarnation in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Cedric Brown, a character who wears his heart on his sleeve is a complete one-eighty from the chilly, impervious personage of Mr. Darcy.
Nanny McPhee manages to be whimsical and sincere simultaneously. It has a moral that touches the audience in a way that most current films, geared toward children, seem to side-step. It is a particularly good movie for adults to share with children; it is not simply an immature plot-line with grownup humor thrown in for the poor parental figures forced into going with their kids.