In Nanny McPhee, Colin Firth plays Mr. Cedric Brown, a widower who lives in a country manor with his seven children - his seven naughty children. The Brown kids are so unruly, so ill-behaved, that they have scared off every nanny who has ever been entrusted to care for them. The family cook, Mrs. Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton), has somehow narrowly managed to avoid their wrath. The maid, Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), is the only outsider they seem to tolerate.
One day, a new nanny kind of inexplicably arrives at the home. She is Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), a frightening looking woman with one big buck tooth, a unibrow, and the kind of complexion that makes the term “pizza face” seem like a compliment. This new nanny has a magical cane; when she pounds it on the floor, the Brown children are suddenly helpless against her. Before long, she is using her abilities to teach them how to say “please” and “thank you,” how to go to bed on time, and how to listen to adults. Every effort at running this new nanny out proves unsuccessful.
The dirty little secret of the Brown household is that Cedric – who works as a mortician – can’t afford his family’s lifestyle. His late wife’s Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) has long been paying the bills so that the kids will not be negatively affected. This crotchety old windbag finally makes an ultimatum: believing that the children need a mother figure, she decrees that Mr. Brown must remarry before the end of the month or she will stop providing financial assistance. Despite being secretly in love with Evangeline (who shares his suppressed desires), he becomes engaged to a local gold digger named Selma Quickly (Celia Imrie). The kids detest her and try to run her off as well.
Perhaps you can pick up on the fact that this movie doesn’t really know which story it wants to tell. Is this a film about the new nanny teaching the children to behave, or is it about the kids’ attempt to prevent their father from marrying the wrong woman? The former might have potentially been interesting; the latter is considerably less so.
Nanny McPhee has the distinction of being one of the ugliest movies I’ve ever seen. Most of the actors wear facial prosthetics to give them a grotesque look. Then they proceed to mug and overact wildly for the camera, which only accentuates their unattractiveness. The sets and costumes are also hideous, obviously having been designed to be as aggressively tacky as possible. I actually don’t mind movies that go for an exaggerated – or even dark – look, but something about the sheer ugliness of this film irritated me. There’s nothing on screen that is even remotely pleasant to look at. I often wanted to avert my gaze from the screen. Whatever the opposite of “eye candy” is, Nanny McPhee is it.
Going hand-in-hand with this problem is that the characters are either woefully underdeveloped or flat-out annoying. The Brown children are uniformly without distinct personalities, which makes it just about impossible to care for them. They come off as little more than brats. The adults fare even worse. Mr. Brown is bland, and his attraction to Evangeline never has any spark. Mrs. Blatherwick and Aunt Adelaide are intentionally offensive, yet they cross the border into that zone where we dread having them pop up in a scene. The same could be said about Selma Quickly; granted, we are not supposed to like her, but I actually hated her. And when I say “hated,” I mean that I wanted to scream every time she entered a room. At least Emma Thompson – as hideous as she’s been made to look – shows some restraint, although Nanny McPhee’s mannerisms quickly wear out their welcome.
There must be some unwritten rule stating that any movie which features more than five children must automatically engage in lame slapstick. We’ve seen it recently in Yours, Mine & Ours, the Cheaper by the Dozen pictures, and now Nanny McPhee. To ward off the evil Selma Quickly, the Brown children make her eat worms, put a tarantula in her hair, and place a frog in her teapot. These are things that real children do not do; only children in desperate comedies engage in such contrived behavior. More appalling is the film’s finale which involves that creakiest of comic devices: the pastry fight. I can’t begin to tell you how dispiriting it is to see a great actress like Angela Lansbury reduced to participating in Three Stooges style humor.
If my count is correct, I chuckled at the film twice. I looked at my watch about five times as much. There’s no doubt that the movie wants to be a fantastical and heartwarming family charmer, not unlike Charlie & the Chocolate Factory or Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. It fails miserably. Nanny McPhee? Nanny McPhooey is more like it.
( 1/2 out of four)
Nanny McPhee is rated PG for mild thematic elements, some rude humor and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.
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