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Movie Review: Nanny McPhee Returns (PG)

Au Pair in Love and War

By Jared Peterson


Nanny McPhee, the anti-Poppins of English daycare, is back. For the price of a movie ticket, she is at your service; there to help frazzled parents such as yourselves bring those unruly kiddies in line (not to mention into the air-conditioning) for some delightful midsummer distraction.

This new chapter in the adventures of author Christianna Brand’s characters begins a couple of generations after the events of the first film. In the early days of World War II, in a tiny village in the English countryside, Isabel Green has her hands full. With her husband away at war, Isabel (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal with genuine charm and the least distracting British accent since Gwyneth Paltrow) is left on her own to manage the family’s farm and shaky finances. Her three children, Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods) and Vincent (Oscar Steer), though generally helpful, are still quite the handful, and the household is in constant disarray. Her brother-in-law Phil (Rhys Ifans) is after her to sell the farm for a quick buck. And more trouble is on the way in the form of two unwilling houseguests, cousins sent from London to escape the Blitz. Snooty brat Celia Gray (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) and her brother, obnoxious proto-ponce Cyril (Eros Vlahos), roll up in their chauffeured car, all upturned noses and haughty disdain, only to realize that they aren’t in Kensington anymore. “Where are we?” Celia asks; surveying the mucky scene, Cyril drolly replies, “The land of poo”. He’s right, and such is life on a country farm. But the young Greens take umbrage with their cousins’ high-and-mighty attitudes. The children square off, hurl some class-conscious insults and soon set to squabbling. Things quickly devolve into a clamoring, dish-shattering disaster. Isabel is beside herself—or, perhaps, she wishes she were; she could certainly use a hand.

Of course, the one she needs is Nanny McPhee, and soon enough she appears on the Green’s doorstep, ready for duty. Identifying herself cryptically as an “army nanny”, she sets to work immediately, diffusing the children’s slapping matches and establishing discipline with her trademark stoic persistence and trusty magical walking stick. With it she can conjure any situation she needs to force the kids to learn the errors of their ways. Nanny McPhee has simple lessons to teach, which she does with wickedly clever wizardry. Won’t share a bed? How about a farm animal as a bunkmate? Can’t work together? Try chasing down a passel of flying, synchronized-swimming piglets. As each lesson is learned, some aspect of Nanny McPhee’s less-than-flattering countenance, a mole or bucktooth or unsightly unibrow, mysteriously fades away—a countdown of sorts to the time she will no longer be needed.

Sequels are a dicey business, of course, though with children’s fare there is always the hope that younger audiences are perfectly content to watch the same characters do the same things in the same way. All things considered, though, I’d say this sequel is better than its predecessor: lighter, looser and more jauntily paced, with more room for some winking and nudging now that the character and her quirks have been established with film audiences—all of which equals some small relief for parents who think they’re in for another boring repeat. Impressively, though hardly surprisingly, Emma Thompson’s second portrayal of this franchise character is just as fresh as her first. The kids in the picture are universally great; each gets his or her moments of wit and emotiveness, also a credit to Thompson and her subtle, witty screenplay. She and director Susanna White (who helmed two wildly disparate TV miniseries, Jane Eyre and Generation Kill) infuse the film with a sense and sensibility universally appealing yet uniquely British—from a sun-dappled, rural charm reminiscent of sitcoms like “The Darling Buds of May” and “Last of the Summer Wine” to that famous British stiff upper lip. (Even when tragic news comes from the war front, children and adults alike find it inside themselves to keep calm and carry on.)

As mentioned above, excrement is an unavoidable reality of farm life, and here cow dung is definitely ready for its close-up. Characters slip, slide and, occasionally, sit quite comfortably in the goo. Aptly, the word “poo” is uttered a couple dozen times—comedy gold to the under-10 set. One youngster utters the word “hell”, and a doddering elderly woman (Maggie Smith) daintily lets slip the phrase “bugger all”. There is much pratfalling and slapstick violence, including a magically induced, Three-Stooges-esque free-for-all amongst the children. Elsewhere, a pair of petticoated thugs called Topsey and Turvey (Sinead Matthews and Katy Brand) sweetly threaten to relieve Uncle Phil of his kidneys in retribution for unpaid debts, and later they prepare to gut, stuff and make him suitable for framing. At one point, news comes that the Green children’s father has been killed in action—it’s a genuinely sad moment, though it soon becomes clear that a happy ending isn’t out of reach just yet.

With its flying pigs, magic motorcycles and dry, clever wit, it’s worth a return visit to Nanny McPhee.


Also out this week is our review of “The Lottery Ticket.”

Older teens may enjoy “Vampires Suck.” Read our review here.


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