For those of us who find Emma Thompson close to perfection, it's a bit startling at first to see her made up in "Nanny McPhee" to resemble a snaggle-toothed Jimmy Durante. With several strategically placed warts to complete the portrait, Thompson is virtually unrecognizable. But all the prosthetics in the world cannot obscure her gifts.
The "Nurse Matilda" books by Christiana Brand are the source material for this intermittently delightful fantasy that Thompson herself adapted. You may recall that she won the screenwriting Oscar for Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility." She has a feeling for the intricacies of language and how people interact under duress that works as well for Brand as for Austen.
Nanny McPhee is the latest hire of the widower Mr. Brown (Colin Firth). The 16 previous nannies have all been undone by Brown's brood of seven rapscallions led by the oldest, Simon (Thomas Sangster, from "Love Actually"). Initially, it looks as if she, too, will fall victim to their antics. But the septet are no match for her poise.
In the journal that Thompson kept during the making of this film, she wrote: "Nanny McPhee should sound ageless, classless, and always calm. In a way, she's like a Zen master."
Nothing Mary Poppins-ish about her.
It would have been easy for Thompson to camp it up or to wink at us from under the facial camouflage. Instead, she gives McPhee a gravitas that provides the movie with a deep core of feeling. The life lessons she imparts to the children, or to their father for that matter, are not simple ones. She recognizes that these motherless children are in need of succor, but she never plays down to them. She respects them.