Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) has seven problematic kids who have run through every available local nanny. To the rescue comes mysterious, magical Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson). With a mere stomp of her cane, the kids behave like angels, the topsy-turvy house is put to rights, and Mr. Brown is even set on the path to true love with, of all people, his scullery maid (Kelly Macdonald).
From a piquant adaptation by Thompson herself of Britain's beloved children's books by Christianna Brand, director Kirk Jones has fashioned an exquisitely designed fable that will delight adults as well as their offspring through its beguiling innocence and hushed, low-key charm. Henry Braham's cinematography for Nanny McPhee is some of the handsomest work I've seen recently, and the ornate Victorian interiors and costumes are magically crafted works of art. Patrick Doyle's music, a bit too insistent, is perhaps the one fly in the production ointment.
Shaped like a tea cozy, Thompson's Nanny is memorably grotesque, with her unibrow, protruding snaggletooth, whiskered warts and W.C. Fields nose. The actress obviously relishes this disguise and counteracts its hideousness with a slyly underplayed comic performance, marked by a hypnotic, preternaturally becalmed voice. From the moment she appears, you know those rambunctious brats will prove no match for her, and her eminently efficient victories over them are deeply satisfying to anyone who has ever had to suffer the antics of undisciplined under-agers.
The cast is flecked with lovable character actors like Imelda Staunton, amusingly martial as the harried cook; Celia Imrie, enjoying herself hugely as Brown's monstrously overblown fiancée, Mrs. Quickly; Derek Jacobi as a dithering mortician's assistant, and the great Angela Lansbury as Aunt Adelaide. Although the blind-as-a-bat material she is given isn't worthy of her talents, it's good to see Lansbury, saddled with an enormous hawklike nose, in high farcical sail.
Firth has his modestly low-key charm as another of those clueless Englishmen who have become his stock-in-trade, while Macdonald is absolutely lovely in her freshness as his ultimate soul mate. The children, headed by that steadily employed sprite, Thomas Sangster, are, mercifully, not overly precocious, and Baby Agatha (Hebe and Zinnia Barnes) happens to be the most adorable onscreen infant since Wesley Ivan Hurt's Swee'pea in Robert Altman's 1980 Popeye.