At a time when most of the new movies seem more intent on swallowing you than entertaining you, the quaint comforts of “Nanny McPhee Returns” seem downright restorative.
Emma Thompson, who also wrote the film, as she did 2005’s “Nanny McPhee,” once again radiates magisterial fustiness as the no-nonsense nanny who doesn’t suffer fools at all. In the first film, set in Victorian England, she wrangled – with the help of some spiffy magic – a brood of motherless kids. In the sequel, she’s dealing with a brood whose father is off fighting World War II.
It all amounts to the same thing. The trouble that children get into doesn’t change much from era to era. She’s seen it all before.
She’s not weary, though. Nanny McPhee is on a mission to teach the children of the world her five basic life lessons – topping the list is “to stop fighting” and “to share nicely” – and it is a point of pride with her that she succeed. As the children shape up, her warty, cronish, snaggle-toothed features gradually coalesce into a radiant prettiness. (In the end she looks like, well, Emma Thompson.) The children’s new-found inner goodness is all of a piece with her newfound outer beauty.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Isabel Green, who is left alone to tend not only her three cantankerous children – 11-year-old Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods), and Vincent (Oscar Steer) – but also her sister’s snooty prigs Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson), who have been shunted to Isabel’s farm from London to avoid the Blitz.
This country vs. city comedy is laid on pretty thick – the word “poo” crops up quite a bit in the early going, as do liberal amounts of actual poo – but the child actors are so funny that even the stalest jokes seem fresh. Vlahos, in particular, looking like a preteen Charles Laughton, seems to the manor born. It’s a shame he has to learn how to “share nicely.”
English comedy would be lost without its eccentrics, and “Nanny McPhee Returns,” smoothly directed by Susanna White, has its fair share. As Isabel’s brother-in-law, Rhys Ifans is a wriggling, oleaginous con man who succeeds only in conning himself.
Although the film is derived from the “Nurse Matilda” children’s book series by Christianna Brand, the outsized humor is occasionally closer to Dickens in his more frolicsome moments.
Maggie Smith, as a sweet-souled dodderer, ought to have been given more screen time, but whenever she’s around, the film really takes flight. (She has a wonderful moonstruck moment when she finds herself buried waist-deep in a mound of flour with no real idea how she got that way.) That old show-biz cliché is true: It’s not the size of the role that counts, it’s the size of the actor.
Gyllenhaal does a creditable English accent and manages to spend most of the movie in a state of high agitation without becoming a bore. Plus, she really does seem like the mother of her brood. (This is not as common as you would think in the movies.) Ewan McGregor has a too-brief cameo as the father returned from the war. One would like to see what he would have made of Nanny McPhee.
Next to her, the Blitz is about as intimidating as a wet firecracker.
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