...an invitation to surrender to Emma Thompson's exaggerations.

Nanny McPhee Returns

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            Emma Thompson just isn't like the rest of us. The woman who created Nanny McPhee Returns is the same one who won an Oscar for Howards End and adapted Sense and Sensibility for the screen. Is that possible? Of course. This is Emma Thompson. She is a woman who can act, direct, and write with the best of her peers in any one of those fields. She studied English literature at Cambridge where she discovered her Monty Python roots in the Footlights group. She is at home in comedy and drama, in Hollywood and independent film, on stage and television. One of her abundant talents lies in the realm of slapstick comedy where her career began. And here she is with Nanny McPhee Returns.

            What Thompson gives us here is a fable that uses animals, birds (watch that crow!), and villainous humans to score moral points in a landscape strewn with wildflowers and barley fields that are tended by a wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whose husband is off at war. Isabel's perfect children are helping her raise piglets who will be the currency that will allow them to keep the tractor that in turn will let them keep the farm until the beloved husband/father returns. This is a premise simple enough for very young children to grasp and for adults to transpose into larger lessons if they're of a mind to. The good guys are Isabel and her children Megsie (Lil Woods), Norman (Asa Butterfield), and Vincent (Oscar Steer). The villains are Uncle Phil (Rhys Ifans), a weakling determined to sell the farm, and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) and Cyril (Eros Vlahos), the spoiled rotten city cousins who arrive for a prolonged stay in a chauffeur driven London Limo. Oh yes, and there's Nanny McPhee.

            Nanny, who has been trained by the military, lives under a controlling notion: "when you need me but don't want me, I must stay; when you want me but no longer need me, I must go." She arrives on foot across the fields, armed with supernatural powers of punishment (a whomp of her cane to the floor stops the action cold) and the five principles of this fable: stop fighting; share nicely; help each other; be brave; have faith. All this is painted in broad slapstick, but you have a hard heart if Asa Butterfield's Norman doesn't bring a tear to your eye at least once.

            How better to spice up the fun than to have Maggie Smith play a loony old gal and Ralph Fiennes as the ice cold father of the awful cousins? Maggie Gyllenhaal must wear a brave smile from start to finish, the kids are excellent actors, and Emma Thompson's Nanny McPhee is appropriately stern and magical. What really seals the compact between audience and movie though, is Emma Thompson's implicit invitation to surrender entirely to her exaggerations. My suggestion would be that you grab your favorite five year old and go together.

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