It’s too easy to dismiss this movie as Mary Poppins with warts – but the truth is, Mary Poppins it ain’t. For one thing, the Nanny McFee screenplay was written by star Emma Thompson and this lady keeps sentimentality to a minimum and goes large on dry British humor.
The story, admittedly, has a Poppins flavour. A bunch of unruly children are tamed by the magic ways of a nanny who is more than she seems. Thompson adapted the screenplay from the Nurse Matilda stories of English writer Christianna Brand.
In this movie version, Cedric Brown (Colin Firth) is the recently widowed father of seven unspeakable children, who terrorize him, the cook and the mild mannered nursemaid Evangeline. After 17 nannies have fled, a mysterious voice tells him that he needs Nanny McFee.
It’s hard to imagine that the warty old woman who answers to this name is played by the luminously lovely Emma Thompson. Bent, old and supremely ugly, she carries a knobbley black walking stick, which she pounds on the floor to get the mojo working.
Coming upon the seven little fiends torturing the cook in the kitchen, her magic walking stick bangs on the floor and the children find their behavior escalating into ever more risky and terrifying – to them – consequences. In the end they beg her to stop it happening and so learn their first lesson – to say “please”.
This politically incorrect Nanny wants the family to learn five lessons and while her methods would not get a tick of approval from child psychologists, they do the job and gradually transform unruly hooligans into (almost) little angels.
The children, led by then 14-year-old Thomas Sangster as Simon, are a delight, even at their most evil. Each one is a distinctly drawn character, even the baby, and is very well played by the young actor. But Sangster is simply superb. Movies are in his blood, since he is a cousin of Hugh Grant, and the son of film editor Mark Sangster. He worked with Emma Thompson in Love Actually and obviously impressed her.
As the ringleader of his siblings, Simon shows the assurance that his grieving father lacks. They do as they are told all right, when he tells them to do it. The new nanny knows that it is Simon who must be taught right from wrong and become his father’s strongest support. But she also reserves one of her strongest lessons for his father.
The acerbic, witty script and the unsentimental performances make Nanny McFee a pleasure for adults as well as children. Colin Firth is charming as always as Cedric Brown, giving him strength and heart in the defense of his unruly children. The scenes where he talks to his late wife’s empty chair are truly moving.
The acting shines even in small roles. Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow make a rib-tickling double act as Mr. Wheen and Mr. Jowls, Cedrics’s colleagues at the funeral parlor, while Celia Imrie romps about as the horrible Mrs. Quickly, whom Cedric seems doomed to marry.
Like Mary Poppins, all ends well, and unlike Mary Poppins, we will probably see Nanny McFee in a sequel.
I purchased this DVD with my own funds - and the grandchildren love it!
Nanny McPhee (Widescreen Edition)
Nanny McPhee was based on this book:
Collected Tales of Nurse Matilda