'Nanny' Returns ... and Charms
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Not a trace of irony or calculation taints the openhearted, old-fashioned charm of "Nanny McPhee Returns." Written and produced by and starring the estimable Emma Thompson, the second chapter in the saga of McPhee isn't designed for diminutive marketing pawns with deep pockets and an addiction to nonstop amusement. An authentic fairy tale for kids with brains and imagination, "Nanny McPhee Returns" serves up a flavorful mixture of magic and melancholy, barnyard humor and old-timey British idealism.
A surprise 2005 box-office winner, the first film was set in a Day-Glo Victorian England, where the monstrously ugly nanny rescued a dithery dad (Colin Firth) and his seven hellions from a gold-digging man-eater. The new "McPhee" jumps four or five decades forward to land in an edenic English countryside (William Blake's "green and pleasant land"), where Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her three children fight their own battles trying to run a farm while father (Ewan McGregor) is away at war.
Radiantly portrayed by Gyllenhaal, who channels home-front heroines from innumerable WWII films, poor Isabel is up against a mountain of troubles. Money's tight, her skeevy brother-in-law Phil (Rhys Ifans) is scheming to sell the farm to settle his gambling debts, and two spoiled brats from blitzkrieg'd London have just arrived. A mess tailor-made to conjure up the grotesque form of Nanny McPhee, part-witch, part-angel. This time round, the black-clad crone -- warty, snaggletoothed, unibrowed, oddly bloated -- comes with her familiar, a belching blackbird. Frowns McPhee: "He eats inappropriate substances."
Confronted by a tribe of brawling children -- the stuck-up London visitors disdain "Poo-land" and those who muck about in it -- Nanny McPhee reprises her lethal magic trick from the first film: If you won't stop behaving badly, then you will in fact not be able to stop behaving badly. Thus, the kids continue to fight, but, enchanted, their blows are all self-inflicted. McPhee is not above taking lessons from Clint Eastwood ("A Fistful of Dollars") in putting a stop to internecine warfare.
Soon all the kids are allied in a hunt for lost piglets, with the adorable porkers insouciantly climbing trees and putting on a bizarre show of synchronized swimming. There's genuine fun here, not just an excuse to get on to the main CGI'd event; you can feel these boys and girls bonding as they romp breathlessly through sun-warmed fields and a green forest. "Orphaned" by unloving parents' neglect, Londoners Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) find sustaining community in this happy effort to save home and family.
At first, Isabel's oldest, 10-year-old Norman (Asa Butterfield), can't abide Cyril, whose plump face and pageboy curls semaphore sissy and fop. (Butterfield is the perfect Brit boy-hero, while the excellent Vlahos' self-assurance and comic style suggest he might grow up heir to Charles Laughton.) But the two are true-blue comrades by the time they march into the cavernous War Office to confront Cyril's cold-fish dad (Ralph Fiennes).
The duo's there to inquire about the fate of Norman's soldier father, but in the face of his pater's stiff-backed contempt and indifference, Cyril takes up arms for the first time: "You've made our lives a misery!" Here's a boy exorcising his own Voldemort, sans any magic but his own newfound courage and sense of self, courtesy of McPhee's tinkering.
"Nanny McPhee Returns" doesn't lack for darkness and deviltry: Ifans' snake in the grass slithers about with real venom, and the horribly cheery hitwomen (Sinéad Matthews and Katy Brand) who threaten him are succubi out of Dickens by way of Monty Python. But, no matter the horrors of world war, Thompson as McPhee (and writer) is crafting an island -- call it Shakespeare's "sceptr'd isle" -- of rural innocence and hope, where a dotty old lady (wonderful Maggie Smith) can find a cushion in a cowpat, a menacing bomb becomes a catalyst for a magical harvest, and any child can find a welcoming embrace.
Thompson's nuanced vision is well-served by director Susannah White, whose impressive credits include "Generation Kill" and "Bleak House." Helmed by Kirk Jones, perpetrator of the odious "Waking Ned Devine," the first "Nanny McPhee" often looked and felt as if the only people who knew what they were doing were working in front of the camera. Not so in "Returns": White injects spontaneity and energy into every scene, never allowing the fable's carefully crafted design to get in the way of exuberant narrative momentum. This is a gifted director who honors the three-dimensionality of real life, even in imaginary spaces and places.
Nanny McPhee herself is oddly peripheral to the action, in contrast to the first film, in which that baleful face habitually popped up out of thin air. This time McPhee is often offscreen or glimpsed as a black, almost triangular form standing stock-still in a field, the eye of the storm. She's like a monument in limited motion, kin to those sculpted-stone heroes of England, human and animal, that pay tribute as the woman who seems to have mothered all the country's children passes by.
An incarnation of national identity and a natural force, McPhee evolves from blight to beauty, age to youth, as her offspring thrive. There's mythic power and more than a little terror in those primal rhythms, something much stronger than Mary Poppins magic. "In my mind, 'Nanny McPhee''s a western," confides Emma Thompson, invoking "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and, of course, "Shane" -- classics that celebrate adoptive families and mythic fathers. No shame in adding Mother McPhee to that American family tree.
Kat Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and websites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.