Two years ago, a reality show called Supernanny unveiled the no-nonsense caretaker Jo Frost to the British public, causing a craze among beleaguered parents (and, no doubt, happily single rubberneckers). In less than a year, American TV had leapt on the tough-loving nanny bandwagon, with the knockoff Nanny 911 and the American version of Supernanny. Meanwhile, Emma Thompson was paying attention. The savvy, witty writer-star seized the opportunity to pitch her screenplay of Nanny McPhee, based on Christianna Brand's series of children's novels.
Like Frost, McPhee is an intimidating minder who uses psychology as a weapon against misunderstood brats; so too does McPhee give the kids' biological parent the tools to carry on without her. Hilariously claiming to be a "government nanny," McPhee goes where she's needed, works her fairy-tale magic, and spirits away. But make no mistake: McPhee is no Disneyfied Mary Poppins. In one pointed scene, the nanny spoons out horribly sludgy measles medicine. Only kids will miss the subtext: you Yanks and your spoonful of sugar...bah! This is the way to kill a kid with kindness.
The recently widowed Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) glumly spends most of his time talking to his wife's empty chair, allowing his seven rugrats to run riot. The resourceful little devils have seventeen ex-nannies on the score when McPhee (Thompson) magically arrives to straighten them out. Fearsome in appearance, McPhee sports warts, a bulbous nose, and a prominent snaggletooth, but as the children learn the five requisite lessons, they begin to see their governess differently. One at a time, her "ugly" features fade away...
Meanwhile, by dangling imperative rent money, the Brown's snooty Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury, essentially absent from the big screen for two decades) engineers a deadline for Mr. Brown's remarriage. Brown's salary-challenged undertaker takes an opportunistic approach to dating, but the kids will have none of the horrifying Selma Quickly (Celia Imrie). Money aside, a much better choice is right underfoot: sweethearted scullery maid Evangeline (Kelly Mcdonald). In a Pygmalion subplot, the working-class girl submits to finishing by the twitchy Adelaide, but only Nanny McPhee can help the family find its way to rights.
Thompson can't or won't diverge much from standard fairy-tale plotting, but enlivens the familiar situation comedy with some pleasingly tart lines (you have to be there, but Lansbury's horrified interogative "Incest?" is certainly one). Thompson also crafts a running gag, involving McPhee's ability to silently enter a room, that gets even better when Thompson subverts it. Director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) does solid work, overseeing a funky Day-Glo color scheme and a skewed, larger-than-life tone reminiscent of Matilda (Jones unfortunately allows Patrick Doyle's insistent score to threaten the dialogue on occasion).
It boils down to this: who doesn't love Emma Thompson? The impressive supporting cast extends to mother Phillida Law and old friends Imelda Staunton and Derek Jacobi, but Nanny McPhee is Thompson's show. Her carefully modulated performance works its intended magic, from the early intimidation of a tucked-in chin and level stare to her poised exit. One hopes Nanny McPhee is a warm-up for more (and more sophisticated) Thompson magic.