Emma Thompson (Sense And Sensibility) plays a magic-working nanny in a script she wrote based loosely on Christianna Brand’s 1960’s era Nurse Matilda books. Under the clumsy direction of Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) Thompson’s witch of a nanny—she sports a single eyebrow, two hairy warts and one overly long front tooth—mysteriously arrives at the unkempt household of widowed funeral director Mr. Brown (Colin Firth). Mr. Brown’s seven devilish children take pride in the speed with which they have scared off 17 prospective nannies with diabolical antics such as pretending to eat their infant sibling.
With calm aplomb Nanny McPhee instills in the disobedient children her five lessons for well mannered behavior while Mr. Brown searches for a wife within the one month timeframe that his late wife’s Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) has allowed him if she is to continue financing the oversized family. The movie is hampered by production designer Michael Howell’s garish neon color palate contrasted against clownish costumes by Nic Ede that drag the movie through a romper room of spilled nursery school paint.
Even though the good-natured Mr. Brown’s house is attended by a military-trained cook (Imelda Staunton) and an attractive scullery maid named Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), none of the home’s adults seem capable of exerting any discipline over the anarchist children who turn rooms into war zones. For his part, Mr. Brown is concerned primarily with perpetrating the dubious child-rearing customs of his deceased wife who was loved by her kids for things like giving them sweets and ice cream whenever they were bedridden with sickness.
Upon meeting the children, Nanny McPhee informs the kids that so long as they need her but do not want her she must remain, and when they want her but no longer need her then she must go. With the aid of her magic cane McPhee breaks the spell of chaos with her first command that the children go to bed when they’re told. As the tikes gradually begin to comply with her five lessons, McPhee’s ugly physical features begin to vanish one by one and she transitions into an almost attractive lady.
This promising subplot asserts itself with the notion that McPhee is, at heart, the ideal marital partner for Mr. Brown even if she vociferously denies engaging in affairs of the heart. Nanny McPhee’s ever-improving appearance becomes the story’s most enticing yet abandoned narrative thread. The nanny’s exceptionally long tooth never shortens even after success with her five lessons has reversed her obesity, warts and eyebrow issues.
A messy food fight climax precipitates a surprise resolution for Mr. Brown whose marital and financial problems are solved in a way that solicits some expository explanation to defend against the age difference between himself and his new bride. Here Emma Thompson the screenwriter robs the story of its thunder by substituting what should have been Nanny McPhee’s reward for her parenting prowess. Instead the children are abandoned to regress into the same horrid conditions that the story began.
Thompson’s impaired narrative instincts seem to have been instructed by her own sense of humility for her character or by some possible allegiance to Christianna Brand’s source material. Either way, the anti-climatic ending comes as a forced and rushed affair that leaves the story with no guiding protagonist. Nanny McPhee needed one more lesson. MTW