Nanny McPhee, an adaptation of Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda books, is in every way an exemplary children's film, but it's much more than that: at its best, it resembles the gently whimsical Ealing comedies of the '50s. The movie heralds something like a return for Emma Thompson, who wrote the witty screenplay and stars as a forbidding governess who takes an unruly brood of children in hand and teaches them how to be self-reliant. Thompson wears a discolored W.C. Fields-type nose, two warts (one of which sprouts picturesque hairs) and a large snaggle-tooth that makes her speak slowly and carefully. As the children's equally forbidding aunt, Angela Lansbury also wears a large fake nose: she's like a cross between Lady Bracknell and a parrot. When Lansbury hilariously flutes the word "incest," she could be Edith Evans wondering about a handbag (it's an amusing reminder of her role as the son-kissing Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate). From Lansbury and Thompson to Imelda Staunton, Derek Jacobi and Colin Firth, who is very touching as the children's widowed father, Nanny McPhee is filled with British pros having a field day.
The film is visually beautiful, with great splashes of blue, purple, and green in the settings and the clothing. The story's climax involves the vigorous, marksmanlike throwing of multi-colored cakes into deserving faces and a storm of snow that wipes the movie's visual palette clean with flurries of dazzling white. Director Kirk Jones uses special effects so discreetly that they really do seem magical. When you compare this movie to something like the disastrous Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, which it resembles to some degree, it's clear just how excellent Nanny McPhee is. There's a special kind of genteel yet deeply vulgar dark humor that only the Brits know how to do, and Thompson's guiding intelligence and "get on with it!" point of view is deeply and vivifyingly British. Thompson's Nanny can seem like a tyrant, at first, forcing her rebellious charges to say "please" and "thank you." But she's really teaching them that when you have respect for others, you have respect for yourself. At a testing point in the narrative, Nanny refuses to help Simon (Thomas Sangster), the leader of the kids. "Think," she says, a bracing, crucial command that epitomizes her skill with children.
Thompson, who was pleasingly ubiquitous in the early '90s, has been rather unavailable since (she's been busy raising children.) If the outlook of Nanny McPhee reflects her own, then she has some lucky kiddies. The movie celebrates cleverness and self-possession; at the screening I attended, the theater was packed with noisy children, climbing over seats, making a ruckus. When the film began, they fell silent, and they stayed silent and rapt throughout, as if Nanny was having a powerful effect on them. For kids, Nanny McPhee might be a new classic, the sort of thing they want to watch over and over again, and it's so good and so much fun that parents shouldn't mind the repetition much.