'Nanny McPhee' Just a Spoonful Of Castor Oil

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006

A nanny -- in the finest, deepest and, alas, most obsolete sense -- is that resolute matron who lives in our Victorian-era home (near Kensington Gardens, of course) purely for the betterment of our wayward but promising children. She regulates, fortifies, enlightens, shames, scolds and encourages, until our progeny have evolved into scrubbed, sublime perfection. She predicts the weather. Identifies birds by their sounds. Reads children's minds. Understands the rules of everything. She is God in a black dress.

Nanny McPhee is the nanny you hire when other nannies fail -- at least, that's the intriguing premise of "Nanny McPhee," a movie inspired by Christianna Brand's "Nurse Matilda" books. If only the film, starring and scripted by Emma Thompson, lived up to its promise.

The black-suited woman (Thompson) who shows up at the door of beleaguered widower Mr. Cedric Brown (Colin Firth) is a disconcerting hag. There are hairy warts on her face. Her nose resembles a bumpy turnip. And she has a distractingly grotesque tooth that protrudes like a single fang; you could click open Coke bottles with it. She hovers in some middling zone between castor oil dominatrix and bridge troll.

The flustered, widowed Mr. Brown certainly needs her. His children, seven shameless tormentors, have sent 17 nannies (all from the firm Nannies of Distinction) screaming into the night. And he wants all the time he can get away from the kids so he can find a new wife. It seems the dreaded Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), who provides money for this household, will stop the flow of cash if he doesn't.

"When you need me, but do not want me," Nanny McPhee declares, "then I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go."

With this mystical pronouncement, Nanny McPhee begins her five-point plan to set the young barbarians straight, from saying "please" and "thank you" to going to bed precisely when told.

The movie, directed by Kirk Jones, should have been a fabulous romp about authority -- the fun, the frisson and the consequences of defying it; and the balanced blend of wisdom that follows. Unfortunately, Thompson, whose script for 1995's "Sense and Sensibility" deserved its Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, evokes no such irreverence and energy. "Nanny McPhee" proceeds with dutiful efficiency, as if she had one hand on a Nurse Matilda book and the other on her keyboard, dully tapping each plot detail into her screenplay.

Director Jones ("Waking Ned Devine") barely stirs the pot. His idea of supernatural events -- perhaps restricted by budget as much as by imagination -- amount to third-rate sparkle and tingle effects. (Any movie that concludes with an orgy of pie throwing is mistaking messy faces for mirthful closure.) And the child actors, including Thomas Sangster (of "Love Actually") as oldest son Simon, act naughty -- as if they'd never done anything mischievous in their real lives before. Their characters' tussles with stern Nanny McPhee are surprisingly tame; you can't believe those 17 nannies were such wusses.

The rest of the cast -- Celia Imrie as Selma Quickly, a social climber who wants to marry Mr. Brown for the money, Imelda Staunton as red-faced cook Mrs. Blatherwick and Kelly Macdonald as Evangeline, the scullery maid whom Mr. Brown ought to marry -- practically shuffle through this movie mumbling "exposition, exposition, exposition." Even Thompson, the one you look forward to watching, is disappointing. As Nanny McPhee, she doesn't rule the scenes, so much as amiably coax them along. She almost fades into the foreground. In a comic moment early on, she claims to have been sent by "the government." The sad irony is, her performance, much like the movie around her, is pure government work.

Nanny McPhee (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild profanity.

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