For those of us who find Emma Thompson close to perfection, it's a bit startling at first to see her made up in "Nanny McPhee" to resemble a snaggle-toothed Jimmy Durante. With several strategically placed warts to complete the portrait, Thompson is virtually unrecognizable. But all the prosthetics in the world cannot obscure her gifts.
The "Nurse Matilda" books by Christiana Brand are the source material for this intermittently delightful fantasy that Thompson herself adapted. You may recall that she won the screenwriting Oscar for Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility." She has a feeling for the intricacies of language and how people interact under duress that works as well for Brand as for Austen.
Nanny McPhee is the latest hire of the widower Mr. Brown (Colin Firth). The 16 previous nannies have all been undone by Brown's brood of seven rapscallions led by the oldest, Simon (Thomas Sangster, from "Love Actually"). Initially, it looks as if she, too, will fall victim to their antics. But the septet are no match for her poise.
In the journal that Thompson kept during the making of this film, she wrote: "Nanny McPhee should sound ageless, classless, and always calm. In a way, she's like a Zen master."
Nothing Mary Poppins-ish about her.
It would have been easy for Thompson to camp it up or to wink at us from under the facial camouflage. Instead, she gives McPhee a gravitas that provides the movie with a deep core of feeling. The life lessons she imparts to the children, or to their father for that matter, are not simple ones. She recognizes that these motherless children are in need of succor, but she never plays down to them. She respects them.
The filmmakers respect us as well, which is highly unusual for a children's movie. But then again, how can you make a good children's movie without that respect? The Brown brood behave like real kids - they don't have that pampered and overrehearsed look common to most Hollywood child actors. I could have done without the baby who, through the magic of special effects, is made to speak, but that's a trifling criticism.
A larger one is that the director, Kirk Jones, doesn't really have the visual imagination to match Thompson's performance or screenplay. Jones was the writer-director of "Waking Ned Devine," and he tends to indulge in boisterous set pieces, like the big pie-throwing finale here. It just looks like a lot of actors having a food fight.
But what actors! The great Miriam Margolyes has a wonderful cameo as a scullery maid, and Colin Firth manfully endures a face full of frosting. And then there's Angela Lansbury, playing her first movie role in 20 years as the villainous Aunt Adelaide. Her performance, small though it is, reminded me of how wonderful she is and how much she has been missed in the movies. (For sheer matriarchal wickedness, no one has ever topped her in "The Manchurian Candidate.")
Adelaide is attempting to force Mr. Brown to marry a golddigging crone (Celia Imre) or else lose custody of his kids. The comeuppance of both women was the occasion for applause at my child-friendly screening. It's a happy sound when children in a theater are carried along by a story. Grade: B+
• Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some rude humor and brief language.
Sex/Nudity: 2 instances of innuendo. Violence: 5 comic scenes. Profanity: 1 very mild expression. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 2 minor instances of drinking