Dodgy but Reliably So
Once again, Emma Thompson reprises double duties as both screenwriter (adapting from Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda children's stories) and supernaturally gifted nanny. As expected, Thompson continues to embody her post-Mary Poppins governess with a quiet dignity, and she does more acting with a raise of her unibrow than any recent Academy Award winning actress has done in an entire career. Still, what's most charming about Nanny McPhee is that, as the central character, she's more than happy to deflect attention in the direction of all other characters, who have absolutely no problem with begging for attention anyway. It's all a bit exhausting to witness, but this film is, essentially, merely another fantastical trip to make-believe land where (just like another new release) strange things -- primarily synchronized swimming by pigs -- take place in the water while elephants steal pens, and crows can harvest an entire field of barley through extreme flatulence. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that phenomenon known as "CGI hell."
This time around, the story takes place in the English countryside during the Second World War. While a father (Ewan McGregor) is away at war, his three children have been making life quite hellish for Mrs. Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is also tasked with operation of the family farm and a side-job in a nearby village. Pressure soon arrives from elsewhere when Isabel's brother, a high-ranking army official named Lord Gray (Ralph Fiennes), sends his two brats, Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) and Cyril (Eros Vlahos), for an indefinite farm visit under the guise of escaping bomb threats over London during the Blitz. To further complicate matters, Isabel has a ne'er do well brother-in-law named Phil (Rhys Ifans), who owns half the farm and continually employs false pretenses in an effort to have Isabel sign over the deed, just so that he might settle his own gambling debts. Just as young Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods), and Vincent (Oscar Steer) have nearly murdered their snooty cousins upon arrival, a peculiar knock on the door reveals the disturbing yet stately presence of Nanny McPhee, who tasks herself with teaching the children five lessons before they'll no longer need her. Also in check is the film's central gimmick of McPhee's physical transformation with each successful lesson. In other words, nothing new here, folks!
Now, unless you've got children or are prepared to adopt the wondrous mindset thereof, this movie isn't for you. But if you can check that sense of disbelief at the door in exchange for one of Nanny McPhee's signature "leaps of faith," or if you found the original quite touching, then this sequel will probably hit the same notes if not higher. Thompson is reliable as always, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who has long since shed the shackles of E. Edward Grey, not only nails the English accent (always a plus in my book) but is breathtakingly earnest in her portrayal of a farmer's wife and overworked mother. Somehow, she manages to do what a lot of on-screen mothers fail at, which is to stir up genuine emotion and chemistry with all five children as she not only takes care of her domestic duties, dodges her draft-dodging brother in law, and also triumphs at looking ravishingly beautiful in spite of her disheveled, on-the-verge-of-hysteria state.
Otherwise, performances are uneven throughout the cast with Isabel's three natural children failing to impress (and, in all fairness, their roles weren't very well-drawn), but with the two city children scoring serious points. Vlaho manages to transform from cold and unfeeling to begrudgingly warm when his character learns the power of true family bonding. Even more impressive is Taylor-Ritson, who evokes shades of Shirley Temple, circa A Little Princess. The short cameo on the part of Ralph Fiennes does absolutely nothing except present the possibility that this renowned actor has developed a severe, debilitating case of constipation. Then, there's the baffling case of Ewan McGregor, who manages to appear onscreen for less than a full minute yet makes much more of an impression than his collective work of the past two decades combined. That last little bit, as well as a relatively strong script, nearly makes up for but -- in the end -- is not quite enough to overcome such strongly fantastical elements that are rather poorly translated into hit-or-miss CGI interpretations. Such a shame to ruin a nice story like that.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.
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