Big Nanny's House 

Emma Thompson plays a governess Robespierre might appreciate.

Set in a distinctly unglamorous corner of Victorian England, "Nanny McPhee" follows the fortunes of a widowed undertaker (Colin Firth) beset by a brood of very naughty children and a wicked aunt (Angela Lansbury) who, for reasons never really explained, has threatened to cut off her crucial financial support unless he takes a wife. His children have proved the match of every nanny in the district when McPhee (Emma Thompson, who also wrote the screenplay) arrives and begins, with ruthless efficiency and magical powers, to set the house to rights.

Based on the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand, the movie has a rather oddly unfocused and disjointed quality. The plot is loosely held together, as with baling wire, by a series of five lessons in obedience and responsibility that McPhee imparts to the wayward children. Every time she succeeds, her face loses one of its blemishes. Although this might lead one to suspect that she will in time become that mandated wife of Firth, it isn't so. He is besotted with the scullery maid (Kelly Macdonald) and so desperate for a quick fix to his problems that he angles for the hand of a bawdy widow (Celia Imrie), whose thick makeup and hilarious taste in finery can't hide her malevolent heart.

Adult viewers are likely to have questions about all this. What's the point of McPhee's transformation if there's no one to wed her? Is she expiating a sin? Others might wonder why the movie goes to the trouble of introducing us to Firth's manic assistants — one of whom is played by Derek Jacobi, no less — without giving them much of anything to do but flutter about on the margins of the frame now and then, where they hoot and giggle.

But the ragged edges of the plot are mostly offset by, or perhaps even a product of, the movie's anarchic glee, its chief merit. Angela Lansbury is given free rein to chew up the scenery, and her imposing Great Aunt Adelaide is a virtual primer on English snobbery and imperiousness.

In matters of design, an air of madness prevails. The interior decorating is a nightmare of arsenic greens, fire-truck reds and jawbreaker blues. As the plaster falls from exposed wood lathes, the embattled home becomes a wretched embodiment of downward mobility and the desperate attempt to escape it.

There's also a rambunctiousness that sometimes pushes the script out of the realm of strictly wholesome preteen fare. One extended spasm of childish bathroom humor will be old news even for the youngest in the audience, but the film's funniest line — the outraged exclamation, "Incest?!" — could provoke some awkward questions in the theater parking lot.

What children may most remember is the image of McPhee's face itself, which could well pursue them into disquieting dreams. Thompson frequently adopts an expression usually associated with massive murals of tyrants staring down on their subjects from the high walls of great public spaces, falling somewhere between a look of parental concern and a threat of violence. There is therefore a sinister resonance with current events when she mysteriously announces upon arrival that she was not sent by an agency, but is instead a "government nanny."

Her way of dealing with the children, especially with the oldest boy, the Tom Sawyer-ish ringleader (Thomas Sangster), is a study in the power of emotional detachment. Apparently aloof from the joys and sorrows of the clan whose fate she increasingly holds in her hands, she makes a surprisingly cold and astringent center of what is, after all, a movie for kids. (PG) 97 min. S


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