Starring Emma Thompson and Colin Firth. Directed by Kirk Jones. Written by Emma Thompson, based on Christianna Brand’s novels. Rated PG.
Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Too bad this film induces diabetic shock.
By KRISTIAN LIN
Emma Thompson spent the first half of the 1990s kicking ass and taking names, appearing in one prestigious film after another, winning one Oscar for her acting and another one for her screenwriting, and establishing her credentials for the Order of the British Empire honor before the age of 35. Who would have guessed that during all that, she harbored a secret ambition to be Mary Poppins?
That’s essentially who she’s playing in Nanny McPhee, a film based on three children’s novels written in the 1960s by Christianna Brand. Thompson plays the title character, a hideously ugly woman with magical powers who appears to a man named Brown (Colin Firth). His seven naughty children have driven their previous 17 caretakers away and driven their father to his wit’s end, but they meet their match in Nanny McPhee. When the kids defy her orders to get out of bed by pretending to be sick, the governess responds by actually infecting them with measles and then forcing disgusting medicine down their throats. The children have no problems getting up afterward.
This sadistic undercurrent and the frequent witty touches in Thompson’s script raise the movie above the level of Hollywood dreck like Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and Yours, Mine and Ours, which assume that large families of unruly kids automatically equal hilarity. Thompson plays the character with the right balance of light and shade, and she’s supported by some terrific British actors, such as Imelda Staunton as Mr. Brown’s cook, Angela Lansbury as a tyrannical great-aunt, and Derek Jacobi as one of Brown’s silly co-workers at a mortuary.
Unfortunately, Thompson errs as a screenwriter in changing Mr. Brown into an overwhelmed widower. The attempts to squeeze pathos out of his predicament don’t fly, nor does the romantic subplot between him and his scullery maid (Kelly Macdonald). More damaging is the direction of Kirk Jones. He did well enough in his one previous effort, the 1998 Irish film Waking Ned Devine, but here he’s dealing with outright fantasy as opposed to comedy grounded in reality, and he proves to have a stevedore’s touch. The sets and props look like they’re made out of gingerbread, and every time Nanny McPhee alters reality, the director feels the need to signal it with ham-fisted sound effects and the tinkling of chimes on the soundtrack. (Composer Patrick Doyle falls down on his job, too. He penned some splendid movie scores in the early ’90s, but he’s in a deep slump right now.) The only way Jones could have done more to kill the mood would be if he had included a voiceover narrator interjecting comments like, “Oooh, magical!” It’s no wonder that this oversized English trifle feels too long, even though it’s only 100 minutes. That’s too bad; with the talent that went into it, Nanny McPhee could so easily have been supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Instead, it’s a collapsed soufflé.
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