February 2, 2006

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FILM: Nanny McPhee (PG)

by Amy Diaz

Emma Thompson spins a yarn about magical nannies, stepmothers (evil and not) and what happens to an actress when she becomes too old to play the kitten roles in Nanny McPhee, a movie adapted from the Nurse Matilda books.

Not that Thompson was ever much of a kitten. She tended towards the sensible-woman-with-unsuspected passions roles in the Merchant Ivory/Jane Austen/Shakespeare adaptations she starred in. Still, she got to have nice hair and attractive clothes. But that was then (1995) and this is now and in the now Thompson is almost 47 years old. So welcome to the wide world of playing first wives (Love Actually), dotty old professors (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and be-warted nannies.

Though Nanny McPhee (Thompson) is still the most sensible person in the room. She arrives as the night grows dark and stormy at the home of the widower Cedric Brown (Colin Firth) and his seven children. Since the death of his wife, his children have more or less run wild and, in the process, chased off 17 nannies (the last of which left after the children convinced her that they had cooked and eaten the baby). Indeed, the only one who seems able to get through to them at all is Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), the sweet-natured scullery maid. But she has potatoes to peel and no time to watch the kids.

Enter Nanny McPhee.

Hunched over and sporting frizzy hair, warts, a unibrow and one over-sized tooth, she’s a fearsome-looking character. But the children, whom she meets mid-bad-behavior, are unfazed. Unfazed, that is, until she speaks to them in a suspiciously calm and low voice and then taps her cane on the floor. Strange things start to happen and don’t stop until the children are forced to say “please.” The blend of a little be-careful-what-you-wish-for magic and a little discipline slowly helps these hellions learn to chill. But their taming might not be in time; the dreaded Great Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) sends money to help support the family but she has threatened to cut off the cash flow if Cedric doesn’t straighten up the kids and pick a new wife. The loss of her support could mean loss of the house and separation of the family. And so far, the only wife prospect for Cedric is the horrible, gold-digging Mrs. Quickly (Celia Imrie).

Nanny McPhee is a bit loud and choppy, as is not unusual of your standard kid movie. But the story, the characters and even the overly bright and garish sets have charm. There is something refreshingly honest about these children, who are not bratty, really, or naughty for naughtiness’ sake, but are lonely and missing their dead mother and their absentee father. They have come together to serve as each other’s family and fighting off the nannies seems to be the sport that they enjoy as a group. The movie conveys this without too much ham-fistedness and allows them to grow without it seeming like too much of a stretch. Subplots involving Evangeline’s desire to educate herself and Cedric’s many conversations with the chair that represents the only tangible remain of his beloved wife are equally good at being sweet but not syrupy.

Thompson in particular brings a quiet sparkle to her character that makes her seem magical without the story-overwhelming quality exhibited by Robin Williams, Mike Meyers and Jim Carrey in their assorted stabs at the children’s movie. And, sure, the transition from romantic lead to witch can’t exactly be every actress’ dream but Thompson pulls it off with enough class to keep aging from seeming like the kiss of death. And, of all Nanny McPhee’s conjuring, that might be the most magical trick of all.

B-

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