There is something deeply satisfying about a fable with a time-honored story line that may offer no surprises as to plot points as it barrels along to its conclusion, but that does, nonetheless, pay strict attention to the serious moral lesson to be learned from it while also strictly adhering to a loopy, almost anarchic sense of fun. Such is NANNY MCPHEE, based on the “Nurse Matilda” books by Christianna Brand, it’s the second screenplay by, and starring, in the title role, Emma Thompson.
The Victorian brood she is called to tend by powers other than natural, are the Brown children, of which there are seven, described at the outset as very clever and very, very naughty. As the story begins, the seventeenth in a series of short-lived nannies is running screaming from their home, having been driven out in record time (the children keep a chart of such things) by being convinced that the six elder children have eaten the baby. They haven’t, of course, baby bootie convincingly on the end of a drumstick (chicken) notwithstanding, but it is the perfect introduction to the sort of black humor that pervades the proceedings. Their harried father (bemused, befuddled, and beagle-like Colin Firth) is an undertaker who always politely introduces himself to his clientele, for example.
When all seems at its most hopeless, children out of control, the agency refusing to send another nanny, the house in shambles, Papa being forced to remarry within the month or lose his allowance from awful Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), Nanny McPhee arrives at the door after several portents predicting the event. She’s a daunting figure in a mountain of black taffeta, supremely unflappable, sublime confident, with wiry hair, a snaggled tooth, hairy warts, and a nose like an overzealous kumquat. She also has a habit of suddenly appearing out of nowhere to the consternation of almost everyone, save the bombastic cook with the military background.
Nanny announces she has five lessons to teach and that when she is needed but not wanted, she will stay, but when she is wanted but not needed she will go. The kids, blissfully testy and sly as they are led by the coolly calculating Simon (Thomas Sangster), try to work out exactly how Nanny McPhee manages to foil their plots long enough to stop making bombs, in the case of one of them, and stop testing boundaries altogether for the rest of them. The children, having gotten very good at this, do their best to drive her away, but their plans, many of them fiendishly ingenious, have a tendency to go awry in ways that not only don’t drive Nanny away, they have unpleasant consequences. Far from trying to change their behavior, Nanny McPhee humors the little darlings letting their schemes play out to their logical and poetically extreme conclusions. This is no Mary Poppins with a spoonful of sugar to make everything better, though there is a spoonful of something that is viscous, black, and possibly sentient as it sits there waiting to be swallowed. And swallowed it is to the amazement of everyone except Nanny. She humors plots against others, as well, such as a concerted effort launched against a predatory woman of uncertain virtue in several senses that their father feels compelled to propose to in order to keep his family together, the thwarting of which could put them all in the workhouse or worse.
That Nanny’s appearance improves as each improving moral lesson is learned can be interpreted in many ways. Meister Eckhart comes to mind with his parable of demons clawing at his flesh until he recognized them for the angels that they were trying to translate him, screaming and kicking, to a more exalted plane.
But I digress.
Thompson has a deft hand with the comic relief of what is essentially a very dark tale of a deeply dysfunctional, deeply sad family torn apart by the death of the lady of the house. They themselves, though living in a house blessed with Crayola™-like décor, are distinctly in the real world, as is their scullery maid, the big-hearted, sweet-tempered Evangeline (Kelly McDonald). It’s the rest of the world that is done in caricature, which might very well be the way children see the mysterious and scary world of outsiders. From that predatory lady whose fashion sense was inspired by a kaleidoscope, to Aunt Adelaide’s teetering soufflé of hair, hatchet nose and personality starched beyond mere testiness, to the slightly too sprightly mortician’s assistants (Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow) who gambol about Mr. Brown’s funeral parlor.
NANNY MCPHEE plumbs the secret sorrows of a family struggling to deal with grief and a rickety future, but it does so with smiling donkeys, riotous practical jokes, and all topped off with a food fight for the ages. It’s rollicking good fun that’s more than just a good time.