Thompson adapts Nanny McPhee from the Nurse Matilda books by childrens writer Christianna Brand. Christianna Brand produced three Nurse Matilda books Nurse Matilda (1964), Nurse Matilda Goes to Town (1967) and Nurse Matilda Goes to Hospital (1974). Thompson keeps the essence of the books even down to the nannys physical description with the exception of the title character getting a name change and becoming a nanny instead of a nurse. In the directors seat is Kirk Jones, who comes from a background in commercials and whose only previous film was Waking Ned Devine (1998) and woud subsequently make light comedies such as Everybodys Fine (2009) and What to Expect When Youre Expecting (2012).
On screen, Nanny McPhee emerges as Mary Poppins (1964) having been reworked by Roald Dahl or having collided with Lemony Snickets A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004). The setting is vaguely Victorian and Kirk Jones throws it into a world that seems like the stylised hyperrealism of one of the Dahl film adaptations especially Matilda (1996) albeit conducted on a B-budget. I expected great things of Nanny McPhee Emma Thompson after all did win an Oscar for writing Sense and Sensibility (and adapting Jane Austen, no less) but came out disappointed. Alas, Thompsons writing is on the banal side. The story arcs in the film are so eminently predictable as to who it is that Colin Firth will marry in the end, that the vulgar Celia Imrie will get her comeuppance, that the childrens connivance and Nannys preternatural wisdom will eventually win out over the nasty Aunt Adelaide, that the children will learn to settle down and behave.
Kirk Joness marshalling of the fantasy elements is banal animated displays and ripples every time Emma Thompson bangs her cane and a dreadfully twee ending where a snowfall transforms Kelly Macdonalds dress and turns the childrens costuming white. Jones directs it all down around the level of noisy slapstick with much focus on the children causing mischief in the kitchen, malarkey with animals dressed in clothing and a slapstick scene with Colin Firth trying to prevent them from sabotaging his date with Celia Imrie indeed, the climax of the film consists of a food fight with various dignitaries at a wedding throwing custard pies at one another. There is nothing remarkable to any of Nanny McPhee, it is a generic childrens film. Somehow, one expected a little more from Emma Thompson.
The film does at least manage to accrue a good cast, including supporting performances from many worthy names of the British film industry including Colin Firth, Derek Jacobi, Imelda Staunton, Celia Imrie, not to mention Kelly Macdonald, the underage love interest from Trainspotting (1996), now all grown up and a dead ringer for Jemma Redgrave. Expatriate Brit Angela Lansbury has great fun chewing the scenery as Aunt Adelaide. The title role is one that Emma Thompson has written for herself. And Nanny McPhee is her show, with Thompson radiating a mysterious sagacity every time she appears one only wishes the film surrounding her had been a little more magical.
Emma Thompson returned playing the lead and writing the script with a sequel Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang/Nanny McPhee Returns (2010).