February 17, 2006 -- “Nanny McPhee” is a surprisingly touching story of a magical nanny who rides herd on a large family of brats. This sounds like Mary Poppins, but it is not. There is no spoonful of sugar in this tale of magic versus very spoiled children. This is a story about children who learn valuable life lessons that some adults never learn. Although there is magic in the movie, it doesn't rely on special effects to get its point across. Instead, it relies on a solid character-driven plot, talented actors and a well-written story.
Nanny McPhee (played by Emma Thompson of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) outsmarts the brats at every turn. Gradually, she teaches the children to behave in a more civilized fashion. Her best lessons, however, do not involve magic, but psychology and love. One of the most valuable lessons she teaches the children is that they all have choices and that the choices they make in life have consequences. The script very cleverly makes this point without being overbearing. The key to the story is that although the children are terrible brats, they are also very hurt and very sad. There are reasons for both their bad behavior and their underlying sorrow. Nanny McPhee understands those reasons far better than the children understand themselves. Although it is pretty clear which way this story is headed ultimately, the path it takes to get there is pretty tricky.
Collin Firth (“Love Actually”) plays the clueless father, Cedric Brown. The frustrated, ex-military cook, Mrs. Blatherwick, is played by Imelda Staunton (who won the BAFTA award for “Vera Drake”). The marvelous, mischievous undertakers are played delightfully by Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow. The very mean Great Aunt Adelaide is played by the formidable Angela Lansbury of the “Murder She Wrote” TV series. Lansbury is equally adept at comedy and drama. She once played one of the great screen villains of all time in “The Manchurian Candidate.”
All the children give fine performances, especially the oldest, Simon Brown (played by Thomas Sangster of “Love Actually”). Emma Thompsen is perfect as Nanny McPhee. Thompsen also wrote the screenplay for the film. Celia Imrie gives a fine performance the outlandish, repulsive widow Mrs. Quickly. The acting is solid all around by a very talented cast. The special effects are also good, but the movie relies on a good story and interesting characters a lot more than it does on eye candy. This is one of the year's best family films so far. It rates a B.
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