The first Nanny McPhee was a delightful outing, far more whimsical than its source material, the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand. As magical as that adventure was though, the sequel is even more appealing, a family classic that you’ll want to revisit again and again. Set some eighty years after the Brown children have stopped terrorizing their household, this story finds another family on the edge of chaos.
It’s wartime Britain, and Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is at her wit’s end caring for the family farm while her husband is away fighting. Unsure whether she can afford tractor repairs in time for the barley harvest, she considers her brother-in-law’s suggestion to sell the place. What she doesn’t know is that Phil (Rhys Ifans), who owns half the property, is more interested in paying off his gambling debts than in her financial well-being. Not helping matters are Isabel’s three rambunctious children who are at odds with their city cousins, sent to the countryside ostensibly for their safety.
Star Emma Thompson’s script is full of wonder and humor. She’s created a world rooted in a real time and place but where wandering baby elephants and flying pigs don’t feel one bit out of place. It’s the sort of quiet country village where characters like Maggie Smith’s Mrs. Doherty, a slightly confused shop owner, will on occasion find herself buried under a mound of flour. The fantastical Nanny McPhee (Thompson) fits right in. A stern and odd-looking disciplinarian who commands respect with a sharp glance, she isn’t beyond using her magical walking stick to help things along, or to transform into the comely Ms. Thompson once the children have learned their five lessons.
As important as Nanny McPhee is, however, this film really isn’t about her. Instead, Thompson’s script centers on the Green family, and it is their troubles that give the story life. The war intrudes cruelly on their idyllic existence, and tragedy is never far away. Isabel’s worries are written on her face despite her best efforts to lighten the mood, and even the children are wise to the misfortunes that could upend their lives. They know that the family could be changed forever by events they can’t control, and that makes this story far more moving and consequential than the first Nanny McPhee.
The rustic setting does a lot to set the tone. There’s a sense of peace that allows the characters’ frustrations to mellow rather than to build into something more chaotic and claustrophobic. A lot of credit goes to the actors too for navigating the emotional terrain. This is an ensemble cast without a weak link. The veterans, that is to say all the adults, are flawless, but we’d expect nothing less from the likes of Thompson, Gyllenhaal, or Ralph Fiennes, who pops in for a scene as Isabel’s officious brother-in-law.
It’s the kids who deserve most recognition though. Asa Butterfield often portrays boys with a bewildered stillness about them. Here, he plays Norman, the eldest of the Green siblings and a child whose quiet disposition puts him at immediate odds with his arrogant, shouty cousins. Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Riston, for their parts, are superb as the arrogant, shouty cousins, Cyril and Celia. You couldn’t find two more entitled, smug brats if you went looking for them at the Insufferably Posh Kids Garden Party. Vlahos and Taylor-Ritson aren’t just here to sneer, however. Cyril and Celia have their own family troubles, and it’s not that they’re horrified at the thought of living with their auntie’s pigs so much as they are hurt that they’ve been sent away. They win everyone over by their tremendous capacity for compassion, which is a message this film delivers with success.
Alt Title: Nanny McPhee Returns
Prod: Lindsay Doran, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Dir: Susanna White
Writer: Emma Thompson
Cast: Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, Oscar Steer, Eros Vlahos, Rosie Taylor-Ritson, Maggie Smith, Ewan McGregor, Ralph Fiennes, Sam Kelly, Sinead Matthews, Katy Brand, Bill Bailey, Nonso Anozie, Daniel Mays
Time: 109 min
Country: United Kingdom