There’s something about the Nanny McPhee character that appeals to me even more than Mary Poppins. I grant you that Nanny McPhee is no looker, what with her hairy warts, her snaggletooth, and her bulbous nose all glaring at you as if she were an endurance test for her clients. All the same, she knows what she’s doing. Perhaps it has something to do with her magic, which doesn’t serve as a vehicle for light, whimsical musical numbers; it’s harsher and more direct, the kind that could conceivably subdue unruly children were it real. Under her rules, it seems plausible that a child can actually learn his or her lesson, and indeed, all the children in this film are challenged in ways that many family films wouldn’t care to consider. But it’s not all strict policies and firm magical consequences – with each lesson the children learn, she gets progressively less ugly, and by the end, she looks like the Emma Thompson we know and love.
Nanny McPhee Returns, the sequel to the oddly charming 2005 film adapted from Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda books, is not an equal to its predecessor; it surpasses it on just about every level, from setting to characterization to dialogue to theme, making for a film that’s fun, thoughtful, and every so slightly creepy. It’s not creepy in traditional, obvious ways, like you would expect from a brooding horror movie. It is, however, heightened to a state of strange otherworldliness, a place where audiences – children included – can actually see the humor in a pair of hitwomen threatening to remove a man’s kidney’s before deciding he should be stuffed like a dead bird. It’s also a place where we feel genuine tension from the sight of children disarming a bomb that’s only seconds away from detonating. In a normal universe, all this would be astoundingly inappropriate. Here, it’s just right.
The plot, which shifts the setting from the nineteenth century to the days of World War II, has Nanny McPhee (Thompson) entering the lives of the Green family, who manage a farm in the British countryside. The mother, Isabel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is at her wits end. Her three children – Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods), and Vincent (Oscar Steer) – are constantly fighting. Her husband is off fighting in the war. Her financial situation is steadily declining. She’s continuously harassed by her good-for-nothing brother-in-law, Phil (Rhys Ifans), who has secretly gambled away the farm and is desperately trying to get her to sign away her half of the ownership. She tries to make ends meet by managing a village shop, but her associate, Mrs. Docherty (Maggie Smith), is just this side of loony, making it next to impossible to keep the shop in order. Worst of all, her children’s rich, spoiled, snotty cousins – Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) – have been sent to stay on the farm.
Nanny McPhee, with her trusty cane, can make magic happen with a bang on the floor, although not in conventional, innocent ways. To make the children stop fighting, for example, she forces them to hit, pull, and kick themselves individually, and she makes it clear that she will put an end to it only on the condition that they apologize to one another. They better hurry; more of the room is being destroyed, and letters from the Greens’ father are liable to get thrown into the fire. Later on, when all five children have to work together to find a litter of prize piglets, Nanny McPhee intentionally makes it harder for them by having the pigs do what they normally cannot do, such as climb trees, jump long distances, and have them partake in a surprisingly entertaining display of synchronized swimming.
With the notable exception of Uncle Phil, that rotten excuse of a man, every character develops in harmony with the story, which is to say we learn more about them as the film progresses. As a result, no one is a one-dimensional caricature. Cyril and Celia, for example, may have lived a privileged life, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to emotional turmoil, mostly the result of parents who are more interested in themselves. If they act like brats, it’s only because they know no other way to receive attention. Likewise, the Green children would like nothing more than for their father to come home; they’re angry that he had to leave them and their mother alone, and since they’re fairly isolated from the rest of the world, they have no one to take it out on except each other. Not a single child in this movie is bad. They merely have no healthy outlet for their pent up feelings.
Hanging over the whole situation is the threat of enemy bombing, unlikely though it may be. Thompson, who also wrote the screenplay, somehow manages to take this unfortunate reality and lighten it up, not to the point of ridiculousness, but just enough for it to be engaging to a younger audience. I don’t know how she managed that delicate balance between childish whimsy, maturity, and morbidity, but somehow or another, she did it. I was also impressed by her portrayal of Nanny McPhee, a no-nonsense but caring witch whose magic can make the best of any situation, no matter how desperate it may seem. Nanny McPhee Returns is a pure delight from beginning to end – charming, funny, touching, and intelligent, one of the best family films I’ve seen all year.