There is evidently no limit to the sacrifices actors will make for their art. If you thought beautiful Charlize Theron went the distance by transforming herself into a bloated, scowling murderess for Monster, just wait 'til you and the kids get a load of Emma Thompson in the darkly amusing fantasy Nanny McPhee. Sporting a snaggle tooth, a prosthetic bulb-nose, a face full of warts, and a lumpy torso Lon Chaney might envy, the elegant star of Sense and Sensibility and Howards End comes on here like a horned frog -- at least until her title character's no-nonsense good works start to score points with the seven unruly children in her care and she begins to shed her deformities, one by one.
This is what is meant by a labor of love. Thompson, who hasn't been seen much on-screen since her parting with Kenneth Branagh, says she's long been an admirer of Christianna Brand's semi-obscure Nurse Matilda children's books of the 1960s, but it took her seven years to write this movie adaptation and get the film to theaters. When it was released last year in England, some commentators compared it to the most celebrated of all magical-nanny movies, Mary Poppins, and that would be fine if Mary Poppins had been co-written by a subversive like Roald Dahl and a blood-slinger like John Carpenter. For most of the way, there's almost no sunshine in Nanny McPhee (there is a good deal of wit), and the eponymous heroine is not about to sing "Chim Chim Cheree" to the little brats, who at one point claim to have cooked their baby sister and eaten her. That this besieged child-minder wins them over at all is testament to some stern police work, and maybe a touch of witchcraft.
Extreme measures for extreme challenges. After all, this late-Victorian brood -- the sons and daughters of a recently widowed, comically baffled undertaker named Brown (Colin Firth) -- has put no fewer than 17 previous governesses to rout, the last of whom we see fleeing the Browns' gaudy, Hogwarts-esque mansion in the movie's first scene.
A decade ago, Nanny McPhee's sometimes bleak tone might have been a no-no in the well-scrubbed world of kiddy flicks, but Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and the sinister imaginings of Tim Burton have loosened things up a great deal, for parents and for kids. It's hard to imagine any child older than 6 or 7 not having a good time here, courtesy of the energetic Thompson, the fiendish teen ringleader of the Brown offspring (played by Thomas Sangster), and a splendid supporting cast that includes Angela Lansbury as a meddlesome aunt, Imelda Staunton as the family's vexed cook, Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow as a pair of sneaky undertakers' assistants, and Celia Imrie as the hideous merry widow -- Selma Quickly by name -- who has designs on the hapless Mr. Brown.
Director Kirk Jones, who poured on the charm in the rural Irish fantasy Waking Ned Devine, has a nice way with his younger cast members (Thompson obviously knows how to handle herself), and he's given his film a look Burton himself might enjoy -- an eye-popping chaos of colors that suggests Merry Olde England on hallucinogens, and an array of rococo costumes (designed by Nic Ede) that suggest the happy excesses of Brazil. I'm not familiar with the Nurse Matilda series (Brand also wrote adult-aimed whodunits like Green for Danger), but Thompson has evidently preserved the literary nanny's preternatural wisdom, her mystical powers (she can even make children sick if they don't behave), and her capacity for cutting straight to the heart of the matter. "Do the children say 'please' and 'thank you'?" Nanny McPhee asks. "In what context?" their beleaguered father answers. The quandary of every bewildered parent.
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Amid the darkness, Thompson and Jones manage to insert a good deal of standard kiddy-movie slapstick, spiced with whimsy -- we've got animals dressed in human clothing, a magical midsummer snowstorm, and a wedding that erupts into a spirited custard-pie fight, all of which should delight younger kids. The movie's centerpiece, though, has to be the anti-Poppins' steady transformation from monstrous grotesque into someone who looks very much like, well, like Emma Thompson at her best. If beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, this inventive movie brings that lesson home in no uncertain terms, on a cloud of delightful contrivance.