Reviewed by: Misty Wagner
1 hr. 37 min.
Year of Release:
January 27, 2006 (wide)
DVD: May 9, 2006
Sequel to this film: “Nanny McPhee Returns” (2010)
“You’ll Learn To Love Her. Warts And All.”
“That which is loved is always beautiful.” ~ Norwegian Proverb
As a parent who also loves films, I have often asked myself if there would ever be a movie that “had it all.” So often, a “family film” seems to simply be an adult film which has been dumbed-down to be semi-appropriate for children. Despite the strong cast in “Nanny McPhee”, I did not have high hopes for the film. The release date had been postponed in the US, which is seldom a good sign. The trailers gave us a peek at a film which was obviously quite visually stunning with a strong and amazingly talented cast—vibrant and visually enchanting, a family film.
Based on a series of British books published for children in the 60’s, titled Nurse Matilda and written by Christianna Brand, comes the story of “Nanny McPhee”. Emma Thompson (who won an Academy Award in 1995 for the adapted screenplay of “Sense and Sensibility”) wrote the screenplay for this film over the course of nine years. Ms. Thompson remarked that one day, while dusting her bookshelf, she happened upon the Nurse Matilda books and suddenly remembered reading them as a child. As she thumbed through them, she got the idea that perhaps the character in these books would make a great movie. What started, then, as the inspiration of a possibility, transformed over time into a film which is already being deemed a classic. Under the direction of Kirk Jones (“Waking Ned Devine”), “Nanny McPhee” is sort of like “The Sound of Music” meets “Mary Poppins”—less the musical angles of those films.
As the film opens, we see a nanny running from a house screaming. We soon learn that she was the family’s seventeenth nanny, and the seven Brown children—Simon, Tora, Eric, Lily, Christianna, Sabastian and Baby Aggy—are quite satisfied with how quickly they scared her away. They have worked together to develop quite a reputation for misbehaving and are adamant that they don’t want or need a nanny.
Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) can’t possibly raise them alone, as his wife died a year or so before. Mr. Brown still clearly loves his wife and will sit, in the evenings, near her chair and talk to her. He doesn’t seem to know how to go on without her, and yet has no choice but to find a new wife. The family’s evil Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) has been supplementing the families income due to Mr. Brown’s inability to provide adequately for his children. Now she threatens to tear the family apart and send him to debtor’s prison if he does not marry within the month. In an effort to protect his children, he has kept this truth from them.
While alone, the children talk of how much they miss their father and how much he has changed since their mother has been gone. The reasons may have been kept from them as to why their father is seeking a new wife, but they are smart enough to figure out that they would soon have a step mother, and they do not like this at all. In fact, that is the very reason that they have become so ill-behaved and unmanageable.
During a conversation with their scullery maid Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), the only person who seems to speak candidly with the children or understand their choices or intentions, the children mention how in every fairy tale the step mother is evil and wicked, and they will do everything they can to stop their father from remarrying for that very reason.
Exasperated at the loss of their seventeenth nanny, Mr. Brown heads back to the nanny agency only for them to tell him there are no more nannies left. It is there where he first hears mention of Nanny McPhee. Over a short while, he continues to hear mention of this nanny, but can find no way of contacting her. Finally, one stormy evening as the children have spiraled completely out of control, she comes knocking at the Brown’s front door. Mr. Brown finds himself startled by her quite hideous appearance and is therefore disinterested in receiving her help. When his reluctance becomes evident, Nanny McPhee begins questioning him about his children’s behavior. “Do your children go to bed on time?” “Do they get up when they are told?” “Do they dress themselves?” “Do they say please and thank you?”
Despite his inability to truly answer her questions, he still finds himself unable to believe that this ugly little woman could be of any help. Before he has time to actually compose himself and say so though, Nanny McPhee heads straight to the kitchen where all chaos has broken loose due to the rebellion of the children. With something like magic, she is able to get the children to obey her, leaving Mr. Brown with the conclusion that his children need this nanny.
Up front, Nanny McPhee tells the family that she is there to teach them 5 lessons. When those 5 lessons have been learned, then she must go; telling the children “There is something you should understand about the way I work. When you need me, but do not want me , then I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me—then I have to go.” With each lesson that is learned, we see transformations take place, both in the lives of the Brown family as well as with Nanny McPhee. What follows is a story that is well balanced in both heartwarming and zany ways. Though quite fictitious and fairy tale-like, there is so much about the Brown family which is real and relatable.
With an abundance of color and eye-popping sets, “Nanny McPhee” is a brilliantly visual and poetic example of how different the truth looks between the eyes of a child and the perception of an adult.
The Good: (possible spoilers ahead)
I have heard many parents complain about how entertainment geared towards children seems to portray parents as mindless and easily outwitted. Though, at first, it may appear that this movie falls into that category (i.e., Mr. Brown and how he relates to his children), it couldn’t be farther from the truth. As with the character or Mr. Brown, we as parents quite often allow our need to control the situations around us that we don’t always allow our children the opportunities they need to learn or grow. I see the character of Mr. Brown as a very human analogy of a father. The example of Mr. Brown is also perfect in regards to showing us that good intentions do not always turn out well, and just because our intentions may have been based on good does not mean that we made the right decision.
Though it is with something similar to magic, the main resource that Nanny McPhee uses to teach these children to behave is natural consequence. For parents and children alike, this movie sheds light on the importance of natural consequences and how regardless of our age, this is how we learn best. The situations in this film will open a doorway for valuable conversations with younger children, as well as several possible “Ah Ha” moments for parents.
As transformations take place among the characters, we begin to see how powerful love truly is. There is a Norwegian proverb which says “That which is loved is always beautiful.” That sentence perfectly sums up the theme of this film, as it offers an example of true beauty and the transformational power of truth, trust and love. As the children learn their lessons and become more respectful, and as Mr. Brown learns to listen and open up more to include his children, and as the Brown family grows strong and united (willing to make enormous sacrifices for one another), we see Nanny McPhee also begin to transform, losing bits of her ugliness. It leaves one with the question “has her appearance really changed or have the Brown’s simply changed in the way they see her?”
Throughout the story, Nanny McPhee encourages the children to think, to use their resources, to figure out what they can do without someone doing it for them. Again, another valuable kernel of wisdom can be pulled from this film and a gateway for conversation with children can be opened. In a conversation between Nanny McPhee and Mr. Brown, she mentions that she is teaching them 5 lessons. He responds with “Surely they have learned more than that!” to which she replies “I have 5 lessons to teach, what they learn is entirely up to them.”
There really aren’t many things to say here. There are a few times when “Good Lord” is uttered, but the language overall was quite clean.
Mr. Brown works in a funeral home, and therefore we see a few scenes shot around caskets or corpses. It is quite tame, but angled a bit darkly.
In the beginning of the film, the children are blatantly disrespectful and untruthful. Though this does change, their defiance is often done to be funny.
There is a dark theme amidst the movie that could frighten small children—the children’s mother is dead, the nature of Mr. Brown’s employment, and the cruel Aunt Adelaide.
Nanny McPhee uses a stick which seems to somehow be magical, and therefore, in the beginning of the film, the children question if perhaps she is a witch. It is a fleeting conversation, and you learn that she isn’t a witch. Though it never really explains how Nanny McPhee has the ability to do magic, it also isn’t anything at all like casting spells or true witchcraft.
Before Nanny McPhee comes, when the children are flat out monstrous, there is a scene where they claim to have cooked the baby and are eating it. Though it turns out to be a big joke, this may offend some people, and I felt it should be noted.
In a scene where Mr. Brown is on a sort of “date” with Ms. Quickly (whom he intends to marry), the children pull a lot of pranks in an effort to scare her away. Mr. Brown catches on though, and in his attempts to thwart their efforts, he finds himself falling on top of Ms. Quickly several times, leaving her to think he would rather have a sexual relationship with her instead of marrying her. Though done innocently, I also felt it should be noted. In a scene not long after that, she is seen at her home with a friend drinking a clear liquid, implied to be alcohol, and she may be drunk.
It is my opinion that finally there is a film that does seem to have it all. Brilliant production quality, moving and engaging story, witty dialogue, visually stunning to watch, beautiful score, flawless make up and costume design, incredible cast—each giving their best performances—and endless amounts of wisdom, laughter, touching scenes and truths to take with you as the credits roll. I found it touching and beautiful and can only hope that it raises the bar on family productions and challenges other engaging films to follow.
Violence: Mild / Profanity: Minor / Sex/Nudity: None