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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Nanny McPhee

I swear this weekend you’d think the Essex Outlet Cinemas had become a recruitment center for au pairs with the arrival of both Big Momma’s House 2 and Nanny McPhee. Both movies center on the care of children with dubious charms, but Nanny McPhee is the one who really knows how to get the job done best. Of course she has a lot more to do. She has seven children in her charge. Seven! But I get ahead of myself. I shall, as always digress…

I came to the Essex Outlet Cinemas with great excitement to see Nanny McPhee. I thought it was about time someone set the record straight about the world of nannies. I grew up with a nanny and she was nothing like Mary Poppins, the penultimate nanny icon of the last four decades. I knew that Emma Thompson, who also wrote the screenplay for Nanny McPhee, would represent the real magic of what a nanny is. And so she does.

Like my own nanny, Frau Litchenfeiffer, Nanny McPhee was cursed (or blessed) with an unfortunate face. The warts, the snaggle tooth, the unibrow, and the bulbous nose are like badges of honor that Nanny McPhee proudly wears, almost daring her charges and the adults around her to call attention to her unusual appearance. Instead, she uses them to command just enough fright to keep her children entrusted to her in line. That was always Frau Litchenfeiffer’s greatest asset ~ creating fear.

The story begins as Nanny McPhee ascends upon the Brown residence at just the right moment after Nanny Number 17 is seen leaving the premises screaming and the local agency has refused to talk again to Mr. Brown about his nanny needs. Poor Mr. Brown. He is a widower, living in a time when men without wives are unheard of, and wives are, of course, essential to managing a large house and staff in addition to rearing proper English children. Yes, this is an England of fairy tales, where Cedric Brown (the charming as always Colin Firth channeling a bit of Hugh Grant), the local mortician, lives with his seven children on a sumptuous estate with a cook and a scullery maid yet totters near bankruptcy if not for the financial support of his late wife’s Great Aunt Adelaide, played as if she’d been given a grapefruit enema, by the legendary Angela Lansbury (in her first film in more than 20 years). Aunt Adelaide it seems has decided for no apparent reason that it is time for Cedric to remarry and has given him one month to find and marry a suitable woman or she will cut off his allowance. Without the stipend Cedric will go off to Debtors’ Prison, the older children to a work house and the younger ones dispersed for adoption. Things are dire, indeed. It hardly seems the time to worry about a nanny, and perhaps that is why Mr. Brown spends so little time fretting over Nanny McPhee’s sudden and unexpected arrival. Of course, it could also just be a convenient plot device, but I don’t want to get too picky.

In the next few weeks Nanny McPhee spends her days in a battle of wills with eldest son Simon (Thomas Sangster) who leads the others in a series of silly yet entertaining attempts to send her packing, and yet each is destined to fail as this is no ordinary nanny, but a magical one, and one who is not afraid to use her powers to teach the children lessons in less than Poppins-like ways. No spoon full of sugar for these brats. When they fake measles to escape getting out of bed she taps her walking stick and not only can’t the children get up from their beds they also really do become sick. And what she’s got on her spoon for each of them to take as a remedy is black, slimy, and moving. Kind of like Frau Litchenfeiffer’s soul.

Nanny McPhee may seem like she is a bystander to Mr. Brown’s disaster of an attempt to find love and marriage, but the five lessons she promises him she will teach the children before she goes are also lessons that will ultimately bring them closer together and lead the children back to their father for since their mother’s death the gap between father and children has grown to a chasm, and Cedric has been so consumed in his grief that he appears to have forgotten them altogether.

Naturally many complications follow, including a near wedding to the worst possible stepmother the children could imagine (and I’m not referring to the dancing, cross-dressing donkey that steals a few scenes here and there). By the final bit of celluloid, however, the lessons are learned ~ on both sides ~ and as all fairy tales must end they live happily ever after. Or until the sequel depending on the grosses of this one.

I returned to the cheerful lobby of the Essex Outlet Cinemas with a tear in my eye, a bit nostalgic for my former nanny. I remembered that long jagged scar across her forehead. She wasn’t nearly as warm as Emma Thompson, to be sure, but she used to tuck me in at bedtime, telling me exciting adventure stories about how she got her various wounds that transported me half-way around the world. The one on her forehead was from an escape attempt at Buchenwald. She fell from the guard tower as she was firing on the prisoners and cut herself on the barbed wire. Ah, Frau Litchenfeiffer, so much like Nanny McPhee in so many ways, except instead of a magical walking stick she carried a 7.5 cm leichte Infanteriegeschütz 18.

I doubt that Frau Litchenfeiffer will be pardoned anytime soon, but if she was I’m sure she’d laugh herself silly at Nanny McPhee just like I did.

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