Nanny McPhee Returns to bring order to another chaotic family, in this second film inspired by Christianna Brand’s Nurse Mathilda books. The unsightly and tough Nanny (Emma Thompson) arrives in a small English country village, where Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has been left alone to raise her three rambunctious children (Oscar Steer, Asa Butterfield, and Lil Woods) while her husband is away at war. Isabel seems to have everything under control, until London cousins Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) arrive and take advantage of her hospitality. Further complicating matters is shady brother-in-law Phil (Rhys Ifans), whose attempts to pay off his debts jeopardize Isabel’s farm. Fortunately, Isabel has Nanny’s help to whip the kids in shape and kick the freeloaders out.
Thompson once again brings her considerable screenwriting skills to the adaptation, keeping the story light and breezy but trusting that young audiences can handle a few tough dramatic situations along the way. The whimsical first film had a vaguely defined Victorian setting, while this sequel is presumed to take place during World War II. It lends credence to the idea that, amongst her other magical talents, Nanny may also know how to travel through time. It’s intriguing to imagine Nanny in different time periods throughout history. It would give Thompson a movie franchise that would keep her acting in films far more frequently than she does presently. By keeping the era non-specific, these films have a timeless quality that will never feel outdated.
Director Susanna White coaxes superb work from the child actors, who give genuine performances with not a hint of precociousness. Always a fine actress, Thompson’s bawdy sense of humor comes out in interesting ways, as she’s trying to be a model of calm and order to the children but just as likely to toss off a response with ribald sarcasm. Gyllenhaal does a nice job of balancing parental concern with forced cheerfulness, and Ifans is a droll villain. Ralph Fiennes, Maggie Smith and a few other British theatre stalwarts make fun cameo appearances during the credits. As long as Thompson can keep coming up with fresh ideas, Nanny McPhee can return as often as she likes. (* * *)
- by Jonathan Lewis