Nanny McPhee (United International Pictures, PG)

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The real star here is the visuals. Director Kirk Jones uses the camera, digital effects, and visual motifs to engage the viewer from the first moments of the film.

 

 

Emma Thompson loves a proper English romance, one in which the man cannot see the obviously wonderful girl right under his nose and the girl denies, even to herself, how desperately she longs for the man, all the while spending every waking moment attempting to become the woman she thinks he wants. In reality, no one knows what they want and they spend too much time guessing and judging. But this predictable English tradition always has a happy ending.

Shakespeare set the rules in plays such as Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing. Jane Austin perfected the formula in the classics Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. And Helen Fielding reversed the roles in the Bridget Jones books and movies. Thompson has been involved with bringing Much Ado, Pride, and Sense to the screen, and several other roles in her career fit the template played both for intense drama (Remains of the Day) and humor (Love Actually)so they don’t all end happily.

With Nanny McPhee, Thompson brings the story to a new generation. Thompson adapted Nanny from Christina Brand’s Nurse Matilda books. She also plays the role of the mysterious magical Nanny, whose child-rearing specialty is to give children what they want and let them realize the consequences of their actions.

As stated, the story is straightforward and few will be surprised, but at just over an hour and a half, the film is good fun and teaches some interesting lessons along the way. The performances range from workman-like acceptability to the sublime. Colin Firth has made a career playing the former (if you cannot have range or much emotional depth, find something and stick with it); one of his breakout roles was Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice for English television. As for the latter, Angela Landsbury is wonderfully over the top as Great Aunt Adelaide. Thompson is always so good it becomes hard to judge her. Thomas Sangster leads a cast of youngsters infinitely more natural than the tots in the Harry Potter movies. Sangster is the rare child that can find depth without becoming a short adult. Kelly Macdonald takes a nice turn as the obvious love interest spurned by Firth. She has done quality work over the years and will hopefully be rewarded with meatier parts soon.

But the real star here is the visuals. Director Kirk Jones uses the camera, digital effects, and visual motifs to engage the viewer from the first moments of the film. He and editors Justin Kursh and Nick Moore set a spectacularly watchable pace. Michael Howells’ production design creates a wonderfully baroque environment for the characters and the director to play in. He uses color and space to develop character, move the story, and build the tension, as well as catch the eye.

One final piece of trivia: Thompson initially played Frasier’s first wife on Cheers; she was a children’s entertainer known as Nanny G. Obviously, this appearance on the long-running American sitcom has scarred Mrs. Thompson…to our benefit, thankfully.

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