3 stars (out of four)
With "Yours, Mine and Ours" and "Cheaper By the Dozen 2" lately cluttering up the multiplexes with teeming masses of onscreen children in search of a better agent, "Nanny McPhee" arrives as a jolly improvement. Emma Thompson's adaptation of the three "Nurse Matilda" books, published between 1964 and 1974, concerns seven creatively unruly children, not a dozen and certainly not 18. Indeed, in a clear rebuke to the TV series "Eight is Enough," director Kirk Jones' picture proves seven's more like it.
Screenwriter Thompson also stars, which is a fine thing. She portrays the mysterious caregiver with the big black supernaturally charged stick, as well as a massively protruding front tooth the size of a beaver's tail. The character is a sort of Hogwarts version of Mary Poppins, and her scary qualities are being played up in the advertisements and coming-attraction trailers. This is a bit misleading. The movie's far less of a "Harry Potter" wowzer than Universal Studio's marketing suggests.
In the original stories by Christianna Brand, the children (unnumbered in the book) overrun the provincial English 19th Century household whose nominal heads are Mr. and Mrs. Brown, a hapless couple indeed. They have no control whatever over their nanny-tormenting brood. Then Nurse Matilda arrives and teaches the kids manners, kindness, the value of listening and cooperating, all by means of cruel practical jokes one-upping the unruly brats. She is a sinister and kind character in roughly equal measure.
For the movie a few things have been changed, though not Brand's essential mixture of nastiness and heart. Thompson has changed Matilda to McPhee and "nurse" to "nanny," clarifying things for American audiences unfamiliar with the source material. Thompson's story eliminates the mother figure (isn't that always the way, though?). The mortician father (Colin Firth) is a grieving widower who must remarry within the month in order to retain the financial support of his ghastly Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury).
Mr. Brown sets his ambivalent sights on the local down-market tart Mrs. Quickly (Celia Imrie), but it's clear from the start that the one for him is Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), the scullery maid who understands the children and pines for their dad. The enjoyment of watching "Nanny McPhee" comes less from story matters and more from appreciating a top-shelf cast having a ball.
Staring intently at her new charges from underneath a deluxe uni-brow, Thompson glides through her performance with an eerie serenity. You sometimes wish she were having a tiny bit more fun with the role. But you have to respect this excellent actor's minimalist approach: She makes every little grunt and glare register. True to the books, the character becomes less unsightly as the children learn their lessons, and Thompson doesn't let the makeup artists do all the work for her.
Firth, in the addled patriarch role that 40 years ago would've been filled by Dick Van Dyke or David Tomlinson, is spot-on. He matches up like a dream with Macdonald ("Gosford Park," "The Girl in the Cafe"), who adds grace and ease to every film she's in and who may well be the nicest Scottish export since Sean Connery. Derek Jacobi has a ripe couple of scenes as Firth's mortuary assistant. Imelda Staunton, late of "Vera Drake," plays the ruddy-faced cook, and while director Jones affords her too many pop-eyed close-ups--the film has its pushy side, and some of the slapstick's routine--"Nanny McPhee" maintains a satisfying, all-ages balance between broad comedy and human warmth.
Oh, and the kids are charmers. Strictly for the record and to be completely ruthless about it, they're better company overall than the kids in a certain massive global blockbuster about a Christ-like lion king. By the time "Nanny McPhee" climaxes with a cake-throwing melee--funnier than it sounds, actually--and follows it up with a mid-summer snowfall, it's almost as if the movie has gone through the back of a magical wardrobe. I had a better time at "Nanny McPhee" than I did at "The Chronicles of Narnia." It is, in fact, the better film--no blockbuster, perhaps, but since when does size and seriousness equal quality?
Directed by Kirk Jones; screenplay by Emma Thompson, based the "Nurse Matilda" books by Christianna Brand; cinematography by Henry Braham; production design by Michael Howells; music by Patrick Doyle; edited by Justin Krish and Nick Moore; produced by Lindsay Doran, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. A Universal Pictures and StudioCanal release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:38. MPAA rating: PG (for mild thematic elements, some rude humor and brief language).
Nanny McPhee - Emma Thompson
Mr. Brown - Colin Firth
Evangeline - Kelly Macdonald
Aunt Adelaide - Angela Lansbury
Simon - Thomas Sangster
Mrs. Quickly - Celia Imrie
Mrs. Blatherwick - Imelda StauntonCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times