Shiny Shelf

Nanny McPhee

By Abigail Twitch on 16 October 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

“The person you need is Nanny McPhee!”

It seems mean spirited to criticize a film for sticking to a proven formula but that’s what ‘Nanny McPhee’ compels one to do. The acting is uniformly excellent. Emma Thompson manages exude menace and kindness by turns under the layers of latex, and Colin Firth gets to show off his comic timing. The smaller roles are packed with acting talent. Any film which, for the sheer hell of it, can get Patrick Barlow and Derek Jacobi to do “Julian and Sandy in the mortuary” can’t be all bad. The child actors just about manage to play irritating characters without being irritating themselves, although Thomas Sangster still looks like a mislaid Midwich Cuckoo. The production successfully gets across the idealized Edwardian aesthetic of the Bastables and the Banks.

It’s not as though the film lacks a dark side. The family faces the threat of the workhouse, as Rich Great Aunt Adelaide will cut off their allowance unless their father remarries and Celia Imrie’s prospective stepmother is wicked in a horridly convincing way, offhandedly breaking the only possession left from their mother. If anything, the film’s Nanny McPhee, with her warts and snaggle tooth, is even more grotesque than Edward Ardizzone’s illustrations of Nurse Matilda, a direct visual source for ‘Nanny McPhee’.

And yet there’s a fundamental lack of imagination. This is a film which is dictated by what has proved successful before. It’s easy to forget that Working Title has given us ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ and the Coen Brothers alongside Richard Curtis, but here it’s possible to see the boxes being ticked. Beleaguered father with out of control children. Check. Despairing maid and cook. Check. Nanny who appears out of nowhere as your magus ex machina? Combined with the fart gags and food fights of your typical Nickelodeon franchise, and you have a perfectly entertaining, beautifully shot and entirely forgettable piece of half term fodder.

If you try and dig deeper, the overall tone is weirdly reactionary. Nanny McPhee’s lessons teach the children to conform. She may encourage the intelligence of Simon, the eldest child, but his plan is to allow the devoted maid to go as Adelaide’s ward in place of his sisters. It is only when said devoted maid returns as a lady that the father will seriously consider marrying her. If you want to get Marxist about it, Mary Poppins features suffragettes, casual mentions of suicide and the overthrow of Mr. Banks’ cherished ordered model of the Edwardian paterfamilias.

If you have children to keep quiet for an hour and a half over half-term, and can’t get into ‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ or ‘Corpse Bride’, then the person you need is ‘Nanny McPhee’. An absence of originality doesn’t make a bad film, but it does make it difficult to care much about it beyond the closing credits.

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By Abigail Twitch

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