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NANNY McPHEE – Not your average nanny knows best

Starring: Emma Thompson, Colin Firth
Director: Kirk Jones
Rated: PG

THE title “Nanny” takes us back to England 100 years ago or more – or back to Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins has imprinted herself on the world’s imagination, not only through the Disney film of the same name but with a successful musical too.

Enter Nanny McPhee.

The screenplay for this fantasy-comedy was written by its star, Emma Thompson.

She had read some stories by Christianna Brand about a severe Nurse Matilda. Since Nurse didn’t sound as severe as Nanny and since Roald Dahl had commandeered the name, Matilda, the title Nanny McPhee was chosen for bringing Christianna Brand’s children-changing blend of witch and fairy godmother to the screen.

Emma Thompson is very well served by commercials director Kirk Jones whose only other film has been the entertaining Waking Ned Devine.

It is quite an enjoyable show.

Perhaps it should be said that it seems designed to appeal to a more feminine sensibility, younger girls, their mothers, grandmothers and aunts.

Actually, fathers who become desperate at misbehaving children might also enjoy it when they see Nanny’s tactics for obedience and control.

And, actually, I have been told that children get a lot of laughs at the various antics.

Nanny McPhee looks the opposite of Mary Poppins – well, at least the opposite of Julie Andrews.

Swathed in black, she has a double nose, startling warts, wispy bunned hair and a tombstone buck tooth.

She does not claim to be practically perfect but she exudes a certain presumption that she believes she is.

And, by the end of the film, she has woven her magic and we have seven well-behaved boys and girls.

These seven are the children of newly widowed Cedric Brown (Colin Firth), an undertaker who has withdrawn from his children, grieving the death of his wife.

The children have become champions of malice in getting rid of 17 nannies – they really are most obnoxious, not just naughty.

However, the scullery maid, Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), sees the goodness beneath the surface (and we are not surprised at her final Cinderella-Eliza Doolittle transformation).

While Nanny McPhee has the advantage of just banging her stick on the floor to bring about some magical change, she also relies on the children themselves to use their brains and their better instincts to remedy bad situations.

Some of these still have the touch of the farcical, but the good intentions (and accepting of the consequences) are important.

Indeed, Nanny McPhee’s methods, after the instilling of some discipline and good manners, have the qualities of sensible counselling.

The film has some broad jokes and some witty dialogue.

Emma Thompson makes the character of Nanny her own. She creates a very interesting character – and we can look forward to articles about her and her pedagogy and psychology.

The children are a motley lot – and not all that attractive even when they are finally good.

But Thomas Sangster as the eldest son, Simon, should be on the way to a successful career.

Adults will enjoy Colin Firth as a kind of distracted Mr Darcy.

There are some supporting cast to relish, especially Angela Lansbury as the snooty Aunt Adelaide and Celia Imrie as a common, gold-digging widow and fearfully prospective stepmother.

Imelda Staunton is the harassed cook and Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow do a kind of pantomime duo dame impersonation as two funeral parlour assistants.

It is all comic make-believe but it does make its point about good behaviour and good parenting.

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