Friday I went to see Nanny McPhee Returns with Kaye and Lori. And while I expected to enjoy the film, I was surprised by exactly how much I did so since going into it, I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea that the first Nanny film required or merited a sequel. Nanny McPhee came out five years ago (already?! – my, how time flies!), and was a wonderful, magical adventure from start to finish. I absolutely loved seeing Colin Firth as the loving but completely overwhelmed father of the wild, irrepressible Brown children. The film also featured several noticeable guest stars, including Angela Lansbury, Imelda Staunton, and Derek Jacobi, who gave the production some added gloss. With a sparkling predecessor like that, I really had my doubts that a sequel could bring anything new to the table. Happily, I was wrong on all counts – I never should’ve doubted the brilliant Emma Thompson’s work.
Nanny McPhee Returns jumps about 60 years or so into the future, taking the story to the 1940s. Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I love studying pretty much anything to do with the World War II time period, so this setting was most welcome. This time around we’re given a harried, stressed mother as the main character, one Isabel Green – here played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I have to say I was quite impressed with her turn as a young British mother struggling to keep her children in line and keep a roof over their heads while her husband is away at war. She exhibited a very creditable British accent, and she really was completely believable as the young mother of three barely treading water during a most difficult time. Gyllenhaal just has a look that fits the clothes and mannerisms of the 1940s surprisingly well, and the glimpses she gave of the pain and concern she carried for her little family were quite moving.
Her wild trio of children is anchored by son Norman, played by Asa Butterfield. He looked so familiar, but I couldn’t place him while I was in the theater. Thankfully Kaye set the record straight – Butterfield is also known as the unbelievably creepy young Mordred in the television show Merlin! I’ve got to say it was really quite nice seeing him play a sympathetic kid for a change, LOL! Norman’s nemesis for the first part of the film is his cousin Cyril, played by Eros Vlahos. Cyril and his sister, Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson), were sent from London to live with their poorer cousins in order to escape the German bombs – and their culture shock is extreme, to say the least! Norman’s two siblings are Megsie (Lil Woods) and Vincent (played by an absolutely adorable Oscar Steer). When these five children are first thrown together, they are in desperate need of structure, guidance, and Nanny McPhee’s “five lessons” (though they would be loathe to admit it!). I really feel like this group of children got their act together a lot faster than the children in the first film. This felt appropriate to the time (even though they are just kids, they are very aware of the war and its affect on their lives), and true to the trying situation the children found themselves in through no fault of their own. This turnaround was anchored by Norman and Cyril coming to terms with each other and working to discover the whereabouts of Norman’s missing father. I really, really liked how those scenes played out – these kids matured fast and did it well.
As with the first film, this movie is full of humor and magic, with perhaps an even greater reliance on Nanny McPhee’s magical abilities than the first movie (though it’s been ages since I’ve watched that one, so I could be forgetting some scenes). These movies just feel like wonderful storybooks come to life with their vibrant, eye-popping colors, quirky sets and costumes, and gorgeous music. James Newton Howard provides an appropriate magical-sounding score, taking the reins from the great Patrick Doyle’s work on the first film. Howard’s work feels like a natural extension of Doyle’s, though not a carbon copy, full of his own flourishes and unique take on Nanny McPhee’s fantastic world. I also liked how the filmmakers used period songs two or three times throughout the movie – it was a nice touch that added to the 1940s atmosphere.
Nanny McPhee Returns is just as much of a who’s who of British acting talent as the first film. Rhys Ifans plays Isabel’s wastrel brother-in-law Phil. While Phil is definitely the villain of the piece his misadventures also provide some of the movie’s funniest scenes as he attempts to placate debt collectors, the delightfully named Misses Topsey and Turvey (sort of a whacked out Tweedledum and Tweedledee). Ralph Fiennes makes a brief appearance as Cyril and Celia’s father, the imposing Lord Gray of the War Office. (I could go off on a tangent here and discuss how far Ralph Fiennes has fallen role-wise in recent years – Voldemort notwithstanding, and honestly I do question if he was the best candidate for that role – but I will refrain.) I’ve saved the best two for last, though – Maggie Smith gives a sweet and hilarious turn as Mrs. Green’s employer, shop proprietress Mrs. Docherty. Mrs. Docherty has an unexpected connection to Nanny McPhee, and if you’re like me the reveal will bring a tear to your eye – very sweet and very well played. (The presence of Fiennes and Smith, along with Thompson, make this a mini Harry Potter reunion…and it makes me wonder why they could appear in this movie and the final Potter films, and Thompson bowed out. Granted, Nanny McPhee was her “baby” as far as projects go, and Smith and Fiennes’s scenes were limited…but still, I would’ve loved to see her return as Professor Trelawney. Oh well, c’est la vie!) And finally, Ewan McGregor makes a surprisingly and thoroughly welcome appearance as Mr. Green, the beloved husband and father away at war. I think he had something like two lines between his two scenes, but I just cannot begin to tell you how perfect those moments were – he was ideally cast as the family’s devoted husband and father.
If you enjoyed the first Nanny McPhee movie, I feel safe in whole-heartedly recommending this sequel as a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. In many ways, thanks to the setting and war-centered storyline, I think I may end up preferring this sequel to first in the long run. The acting chemistry between the kids also help sell the movie – this time around this group gelled really, really well and I loved watching them overcome their differences and come together as a family. I have to commend Emma Thompson for once again a job well done bringing Nanny McPhee to life – she’s so good as this character. There’s something so heartbreaking when you stop to think about McPhee’s role in the lives of her young charges – she can only stay when she’s needed, but not wanted - and when she’s finally wanted, that’s when she must go. It’s really a powerful reminder to treasure the relationships that matter in one’s life through thick and thin, especially parental relationships, I think. Between Thompson’s energetic script and elegant on-screen presence (warts and all!), Susanna White’s fast-paced direction (she’s behind Jane Eyre and several Bleak House episodes), sparkling sets and costumes, and wonderful acting, Nanny McPhee Returns is heart-warming, not-to-be-missed fun. With a sequel this good, I say bring on a third installment…