Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang

Starring Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhy Ifans and Maggie Smith. Directed by Susanna White. 109 mins.
Rated G. 

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang is a rare delight for children and grown-ups alike. More than merely a sequel to Nanny McPhee (2005), it is an entertaining feast for the mind and imagination that sees the witty, hugely gifted Emma Thompson at the top of her form as a writer and actor.

Set in the English countryside in the 1940s, Maggie Gyllemhaal plays Mrs Green, a young mother at her wit’s end trying to look after three unruly children, and keep the farm running, while her husband is away at war.

The children, 11 year-old Norman (Asa Butterfield), 9 year-old Megsie (Lil Wood), and 6 year-old Vincent (Oscar Steer) miss their father desperately, and bicker and fight constantly. Barely coping, and having had no word from her husband for some time, Mrs Green is forced to leave the running of the farm to the children, while she works for muddle-headed Mrs Docherty (Maggie Smith) in a desperate attempt to pay the money owed Farmer MacReadie (Bill Bailey) for the purchase of a tractor.

Added to this, Mrs Green is being endlessly badgered by her brother-in-law Phil (Rhys Ifans) to sell the farm (which he jointly owns), ostensibly to ease the burden of struggling to make ends meet, but in reality to pay off a crippling debt he owes the local casino.

Total bedlam erupts, however, when Mrs Green’s posh nephew and niece, Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) are sent from London for an indefinite stay on the farm to escape the bombs. Smug and disdainful, they arrive by chauffeur-driven car a day early, and all-out war erupts immediately between the horribly spoiled city children and their country cousins – until the seemingly inexplicable and fortuitous arrival on the scene of magical Nanny MacPhee.

Nanny McPhee 2 is beautifully filmed and choreographed, making a wonderland from the English countryside that is nostalgically romantic and magical, yet real. One reason for this is the decision of the producers to be as realistic as possible, and use computer generated images sparingly. The result is generally seamless blending.

Some of the film’s visual wonders are the animals that populate the story: the cow, goat, and baby elephant that sleep and interact with the children (conjured by Nanny McPhee to teach them a lesson in sharing!), and the sextet of prized piglets who are the key to the story, and in one glorious sequence, climb trees before engaging in Busby Berkely-style synchronised swimming.

There is also Nanny McPhee’s ‘familiar’, a jackdaw with the name of Mr Edelweiss, who banished by Nanny in the past for some unnamed indiscretion, manages (like the children) to redeem himself, and win back his place in her affection.

But the film’s visual and emotional attractiveness would be merely cute and dissolve once the viewer left the cinema, if it were not for the cleverness of the storytelling (script and direction), the accomplished acting (in particular, that of the children), and the profound truths that lie at the film’s heart, about what makes life valuable.

With the lightest possible touch, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang is set during a time of war, not only in the wider world between (unnamed) nations, but in the general community as well, namely families.

Based on the character from the Nurse Matilda children’s book series written by Christianna Brand, Thompson’s Nanny McPhee is an archetypal authority figure, loving but with firm ideas about what is reasonable and therefore permissible, whose magical talent is to liberate what is best in children, through play that encourages responsibility.

Seen as a witch at first, classically ugly with hairy warts, a mono-brow and a projecting tooth, Nanny McPhee physically changes as all five children begin to love both her and the people they are becoming. 

With great humour and affection, Emma Thompson has made this fable about sharing, helping others, and having faith in oneself and the future, all her own, ensuring Nanny McPhee 2 a place alongside other children’s film classics, such as Charlotte’s Web.

Universal  Out April 1

Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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