A Good Crone Atones: Children's Franchise Recovers With Polished Sequel

City Pulse | August 16, 2010
A Good Crone Atones

Children's Franchise Recovers With Polished Sequel

Nanny McPhee Returns (Three Stars) (615 words)

By Cole Smithey

A vast improvement over the 2005 franchise introduction of co-writer/actress Emma Thompson's Mary-Poppinsish household savior, "Nanny McPhee Returns" finds modern-day meaning in its World War II era English trappings. Gone is the garish fluorescent neon color palate, and mean-spirited themes that attended the poorly contrived initial installment. Where "Nanny McPhee" was based on the first of Christianna Brand's "Nurse Matilda" books, the sequel departs from the series to find the diabolically unsightly nanny coming to the aid of farm-owner Isabel Green (excellently played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). With her husband (Ewan McGregor) away at war, Isabel already has her hands full with three children (Norman, Megsie, and Vincent) before playing host to their hoity-toity London cousins, a brother and sister with a low regard for such a manure-entrenched environment. With her handy magical cane and unsightly unibrow, Nanny McPhee arrives to make good on her promise to inculcate the unruly children with her "five lessons" that will leave the family members "wanting," but not "needing" her continued service. The ever-vivacious Maggie Smith adds her own distinctive flair as Mrs. Docherty, Isabel's shop owner-boss whose lacking sense of neatness is a major obstacle.

Although it's not stated that the war that Mr. Green serves in is specifically War World II there are clues, such as the '40s era Rolls Royce that delivers the bratty duo of Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) to the Green's "Deep Valley Farm." London is considered too dangerous a place for the children.

A constant threat of foreclosure is conveyed daily by Mrs. Green's shady brother-in-law Phil (Rhys Ifans), whose secretly unpaid gambling debts include his half of the farm. Pursued by two dubious "hit women" debt collectors, who threaten to relieve Phil of his kidneys unless he pays up, Phil tries desperately to get Mrs. Green to sign away her half of the farm that she is barely able to keep up payments on. The circumstances are right out of 2010, when families are losing their homes while family members serve in far away wars. The anxieties the characters experience are directly related to the five lessons that Nanny McPhee ("small c, big P") promises to teach the five children. "Not fighting" and "sharing" are first up on Nanny's list. It's clear that the ethics at play are intended for the adult world of uncivilized behavior as much as for younger members of the audience.

Yet, director Susanna White sculpts rather than hammers the themes that remove Nanny McPhee's unsightly features one-by-one as they are met by the children. Gooey-eyed reveries of talented piglets that climb trees and do synchronized swimming give the movie an innocent flair of magical influence. Simon Elliott's production design is beautifully detailed and allows the viewer to savor everything that cinematographer Mike Eley ("Touching the Void") allows into the frame of largely Oxfordshire locations.

The story's emphasis is as much on the children taking responsibility for their emotions and actions as it is about adults owning up for theirs. The film's defining sequence finds newly-bonded cousins Cyril and Norman chaperoned to London's War Office in Nanny's trusty sidecar motorcycle (another War World II allusion) to meet with Lord Gray (Ralph Fiennes) about Mr. Green's status in the war. The boys speak truth to power with a disarming sincerity that melts your heart. Braveness too is on Nanny McPhee's list of must-have qualities, and it isn't exhibited in a way that you might expect. There's more than a little movie magic here and some very tidy performances from Gyllenhaal and Thompson to boot.

Rated PG. 109 mins.

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