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Nanny McPhee (10/10)

by Tony Medley

Does love at first sight exist? Is it accurate and lasting? After the first minute I leaned over to my guest and said, “I love this movie.” From a start that grabbed me, an aerial shot zooming in on the house where the recently widowered Mr. Brown resides with his seven obstreperous children, it just got better and better. This isn’t some slow, predictable children’s movie. Based on the "Nurse Matilda" Books by Christianna Brand, this is an up-tempo film that doesn’t fade. Highlighted by wonderful music by Patrick Doyle, director Kirk Jones has kept the pace at a surprisingly high tempo for what most people will enter expecting a clichéd children’s movie, buttressed by an ill-advised ad campaign raising the specter of “Mary Poppins” (1964). But it’s not just a children’s movie. It’s not even close to the saccharine “Poppins.” Nanny McPhee's motto of "Behave or Beware" makes it more like the old time war movies in which a tough, decent drill sergeant, like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, takes over a group of feisty recruits and molds them into people who can take Mount Suribachi.

Only here it’s Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson, who also wrote the brilliant script). McPhee is a magical nanny with a magical cane. She appears when poor Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) loses his 17th nanny and can’t find another. The children, led by the devilish little Simon (Thomas Sangster) think horrible looking McPhee will be duck soup. But she is undaunted, telling them, “When you need me but don’t want me, I will stay. When you want me but don’t need me, I will leave.” To which Simon yells, “We will never want you!” Unruffled, McPhee responds, “Then I’ll never go.”

This is so deliciously over the top on so many levels...from beastly behavior to gross and excessive destruction to gross and excessive excesses...with the simple direct lessons woven in well that life is better for thoughtful, well-behaved and well-mannered children who think of the ramifications before they act, and that it's the love from within that counts in the end. The film conveys good messages of the importance of substance over surface, and that every action has its consequences, for which the actor must be responsible.

Thompson gives an exceptional performance as the grotesque McPhee. She's as stern as a drill sergeant, but there's method in her approach. Even her appearance and the way it changes constitute a metaphorical message of the effects of goodness.

Angela Lansbury makes her first appearance in two decades on the silver screen as the delightfully hateful Aunt Adelaide, who insists Mr. Brown marry within a month or she will withdraw her financial support, sending Mr. Brown to debtors' prison and his children to orphanages.

The film ends with a slapstick scene that's been a Hollywood staple since the days of Gower Gulch. It's so well done I laughed out loud.

Two years ago I saw “The Notebook” at a January screening and thought it was the best movie of the year. It stood the test of time until I saw “Hotel Rwanda,” and had to rate them a tie. Similarly, this year something in the remaining 11 months of the year is going to have to rival “Casablanca” and “Gone With the Wind” and “The Sound of Music” to supplant “Nanny McPhee” as my most enjoyable movie of 2006. In a normal world, Oscar nominations should go to at least Thompson (best actress, best screenplay), Doyle (best musical score), and Jones (best director).

All the actors, from Thompson's deadpan McPhee, through Firth's worried Mr. Brown to the children to Lansbury, are marvelous. Contrary to what the title might lead you to believe, this is not a children’s movie. This is a movie adults should love along with their children. Twenty four hours later I still am basking in its glow. I love this movie.

January 23, 2006