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Published: Friday, 1/27/2006

Movie review: Nanny McPhee ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

There's some Python in Nanny McPhee. She's not cruel or dangerous. Rather this woman is gentle but firm. Insistently firm, and fair. The Python in her is strictly Monty Python; it appears to have an influence, though she works exclusively with children. She arrives like a pleasant Igor, quiet and behind your back, ever so tactfully startling you when you turn around.

She says she knocked.

The first thing you notice is her appearance. Her nose looks as if it were stolen from Karl Malden, her unibrow lifted from Frida Kahlo. She has two large moles, one beside her nose, the other (the one with the long blond hair in it) attached to her chin.

As for the overall shape of her body: I'm reminded of a Humvee wearing a mourning dress, carrying a cane. Either that or she ate Mary Poppins. Where does this woman come from? The ether, apparently. Colin Firth is frantically trying to find a nanny for his six children, who are so horrible they've driven away the previous 17. Then, as if his subconscious had spoken, a voice intones: "The person you need is Nanny McPhee." Again and again. Interesting way of advertising: Before he gets a second to ring her, she is at his front door.

McPhee here, ready to nanny.

Who sent her?

"I am a government nanny."

Do you see the Python in this now? The very first shot in Nanny McPhee, a somewhat charming and somewhat overly frantic family picture (that presumably employed every British actor who wasn't tied up on a Harry Potter film), is of an ornate chair, and this narration:

"We should not begin our story with this empty chair, and still, it is empty, and so we do."

There's the other influence:

Lemony Snicket, not actually British, but the nom de plume of American writer Daniel Handler, who writes his comically pessimistic and sunny children's books (A Series of Unfortunate Events, vol. 1-12) with a voice so distinct it has been clearly lifted here - that's not a criticism.

Handler hardly invented the idea that works of literature (or film) for children could be simultaneously sweet, perverse, and deeply sadistic; Roald Dahl and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is probably the most sentimental adolescent nightmare of the last 50 years, a cautionary heartwarmer that keeps on scaring.

Before that, Dickens wasn't cutting angel-faced Oliver Twist much slack; and though it was the Brothers Grimm (a pair of Germans) who perhaps first recognized childhoods were not the stuff of cookie jars and kid gloves, it's the Brits, right up to the Harry Potter fantasies of today, who perfected the art of creepy tales for creepy children.

Is it any coincidence the great sci-fi picture Village of the Damned, the one with the eerie, all-knowing tow-headed space kids, was set in rural England?

I think not. (America, by comparison, prefers a subtle word for such monsters - precocious.)

What Handler tapped with Lemony Snicket (and his own Jim Carrey adaptation mostly missed) is the older, pre-Harry British tradition in which the pessimism is so unremitting, you've got nothing left but nervous laughter; again, though Handler is American, he captures this tone as fearlessly as anyone, and it's his sardonic voice Nanny McPhee appropriates to near perfection; at least, until it doesn't, giving way to a sticky sweet saccharine and regrettable franticness. (It ends with a food fight, of all things.)

Did I mention, for example, Nanny McPhee is played by normally radiant Emma Thompson, buried under so much latex and faux hideousness only her eyes are recognizable? And her voice.

Serene to the point of hypnotic, Nanny McPhee's calming tones prove deeply unsettling to the six Brown children - hellions who stop short of twisting their heads into 360s and spitting pea soup.

Her voice represents the encroachment of incorruptible law and order, and the Brown children, ever since their mum died, has been Lord of the Flies without the murder and conch shells. At the start, Cedric Brown (Firth) has thrown up his hands and told the children he will not be hiring new nannies because there are none - and besides, they'd drive away any new hires.

"Plenty of hard evidence for it," agrees the oldest, Simon (ragamuffin Thomas Sangster).

This is a hard place for a movie to operate, perhaps why more films tend not to go there: Our father-knows-worst (Firth) looks completely ineffectual, unable to maintain his children without a mother figure on hand, only capable of empty threats; and the kids, to be believable at all, have to be utterly unlikable, without removing all possibility of ever being lovable.

Then there's the deeply personal subject of parenting skills: With a live-in cook and fetching chambermaid (Kelly MacDonald), you would think he has help, but this is a household ruled by fear, of kids.

Tea and sympathy, Colin?

At first, Nanny McPhee suggests she rules by fear, too: a tap of her cane and the children can't get out of bed, another tap and their phony case of measles becomes an actual case. It's mostly to get their attention. A slow-growing mutual admiration society forms, and it's plenty for us; Nanny teases lessons from them on respect and thankfulness, in such witty and unexpected ways, the Brown kids feel humbled.

Director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine), on the other hand, treats the audience like a child, running Firth through a tepid marriage proposal and standoff with his mother-in-law (a puckered Maggie Smith) that makes Nanny McPhee and the children allies much too soon. He gets literal, and absurd works so nicely.

Who is Nanny McPhee?

Where did she come from?

Why now?

Some of those questions are answered, and to be honest, we don't want to know. Would an audience today demand to know the background of Mary Poppins? Or more to the point, would a studio get nervous and explain her magic, for fear of the pragmatic walking among us? Perhaps. And perhaps Nanny McPhee would appear on its Burbank doorstop one day and teach a lesson, about trust.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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