Production designers rarely get the credit they’ve earned. Their work — creating the visual style of a film’s particular universe — is essential; without good design, even the best performances and most thoughtful direction can seem adrift on seas they were never meant to cross. Yet design is one of those things that critics and audiences tend to consider only when other crucial elements of a film are lacking, saying things like “The story doesn’t make any sense, but at least there’s pretty stuff to look at.” I mention production design first here not because the other aspects of Nanny McPhee are lacking, but because the world its designer, Michael Howells, creates — a magical place grounded by the workings of real-world forces — is the first thing you notice; it’s what instantly clues you in that this movie is not going to be like others in its genre. Given its setting and plot, the comparisons to Mary Poppins are almost too obvious to avoid, though it would be nice to see someone try. Nanny McPhee is hardly the kind of person who would describe herself as “practically perfect in every way,” and this ain’t that kind of movie, not by a long shot. Mary Poppins and its Disney ilk take place in artificial lands — made up of obvious soundstages and fake, back-lot neighborhoods — that have been primped and sterilized beyond any resemblance to reality, but the world of Nanny McPhee is one ruled by entropy, where the wear and the damage inflicted by unruly children shows in every nicked and bruised baluster, in each scratched and faded wall of their home. That’s not to say the place is dreary; in fact it’s a cozy circus of saturated, complementary colors and varied lighting effects, a vaguely Victorian/Edwardian world that’s just imperfect enough to feel really lived-in and just fantastic enough to convince you that magical things could happen there.
Of course, however wonderful the world created by Howells (who also did great period design on Emma, An Ideal Husband, and Bright Young Things), his work would be for naught if the script, acting, and direction weren’t also first-rate; fortunately they are. The film’s screenwriter/star, Emma Thompson, based her script for Nanny McPhee on a series of children’s books by Christianna Brand, in which the character was called Nurse Mathilda. Thompson changed the name to avoid ambiguity (“nurse” and “nanny” being nearer synonyms in the in the early 20th century than now), gave the film a structure of her own, and whittled the numberless children down to a more manageable lot, but she retained the children’s bottomless love of mischief and Nurse Mathilda’s singular appearance, magical powers, and rigorous approach to child-rearing. Nanny McPhee’s goal is to teach children five basic rules of good behavior, but the lessons they learn along the way turn out to be more valuable, to encompass, in fact, much of what they’ll need to know in life. She doesn’t take an authoritarian drill-sergeant attitude, though; she lets their misbehavior be its own punishment, using a tap of her magic walking stick to force them to overindulge in their own naughtiness until they’re begging for release.
The family in need of Nanny McPhee’s services is led by Cedric Brown (Colin Firth), a good-natured mortician and beleaguered widower father to seven of the most ill-behaved children in England, children who pride themselves on their ability to scare off new nannies and keep a graph that shows the shrinking time necessary to do so — the most recent one left after only a couple of days, when they convinced her they’d eaten their baby sister. The children’s behavior is both funny and appalling, yet they’re not annoying brats or, alternatively, off-puttingly precious. They’re adorable little kids, but they’re also people, with their own ideas, schemes, and logic. Their ringleader is the eldest and most conniving boy, Simon (Thomas Sangster, from Love Actually), and he and his brothers each have their own distinct personalities. Unfortunately the girls are less differentiated — the oldest is the most responsible of all the children, but the middle two are little more than ciphers; the baby is funny and cute, though perhaps a bit too similar to the baby in A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Despite the actors’ adage about the dangers of working with children, Thompson doesn’t have to worry about anyone upstaging her; she makes Nanny McPhee such a strange, fascinating, repulsive, yet likable character that it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. As a writer, though, Thompson is generous to the other performers, gradually reducing her own presence as the children become more independent. As the story progresses, they must tangle with assorted adults who share neither their father’s indulgence nor their nanny’s innate understanding of child psychology. Their great-aunt Adelaide is a rich dowager, an old-money snob who could be a sister to Judi Dench’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Adelaide helps support the family and persuades herself that she means well by her many imperious edicts to Cedric, yet her schemes inevitably involve forcing him into situations that spell heartbreak and calamity for the children. Adelaide is played by the marvelous Angela Lansbury, in her first live-action feature film appearance in over 20 years, and it’s a great comic performance, one that, should it prove to be her final big-screen role, would be a worthy capper to her long career. (Her last scene, where she flawlessly maintains her stiff-backed haughtiness in the most unlikely circumstances, is particularly priceless.) The children’s other nemesis is Mrs. Selma Quickly, already a widow three times over and hopeful of becoming the second Mrs. Brown and thereby a recipient of Adelaide’s largesse. Mrs. Quickly is played by Celia Imrie (who plays an entirely different kind of bitch in another film released today, Imagine Me & You) as the kind of taste- and tact-free climber who, were the film’s setting current, would be outfitted in leopard-print stretch-pants and a spangled tank-top. But since the film is set roughly a hundred years ago, her outfits (designed by the film’s costumer, Nic Ede) are delightfully outre rococo confections of velvet and satin, always in her signature hot pink and electric green.
Elements of Nanny McPhee’s plot are necessarily formulaic, but they’re handled with a verve and whimsy that give them new life. The film’s director is Kirk Jones, a director of commercials whose only previous feature was the twee Waking Ned Devine way back in 1998. Jones appears to have spent the intervening years wisely, as the film shows the confident — and clearly collaborative — hand of a director who knows where he’s going and has everything he needs in place to get there. Though the film is funny throughout, it balances the humor with lessons for the children — and the adults — that are given a light touch. Thompson’s script and Jones’ direction get their points across without resorting to the big, manipulative scenes that are typical of family films; there’s plenty of emotion but never sentimentality. The film takes the stand — which is, sadly, kind of bold given the permissive attitudes toward parenting that currently prevail — that children should obey their parents and learn self-restraint, but it also shows that even kind, intelligent adults don’t know everything and will sometimes make mistakes. Everyone in the film is flawed but almost all are essentially decent; the only people it isn’t charitable toward are the venal and the snobbish. Nanny McPhee sets up an ideal for the children to aspire to, but it’s a different, more humane one than is typical, one not of perfection but continual improvement. We know the kids will sometimes still be unruly, but they’ve learned to seek to better themselves. Jones describes it thus: “Nanny McPhee walks into a family full of good people with good intentions and makes them all see their own goodness and each other’s goodness. … She doesn’t make them good. She shows that they’re already good.” Would that we’d all had a Nanny McPhee.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Nanny McPhee / Jeremy Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()