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Friday, January 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Nanny McPhee": Mary Poppins, meet McPhee

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Nanny McPhee," with Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Kelly Macdonald, Angela Lansbury, Celia Imrie, Imelda Staunton. Directed by Kirk Jones, from a screenplay by Thompson, based on the "Nurse Matilda" books by Christianna Brand. 98 minutes. Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some rude humor and brief language. Several theaters.

I'd never heard of the "Nurse Matilda" series of children's books, but if they're anything like the delightful film that they inspired, clearly I've missed something. "Nanny McPhee," directed by Kirk Jones and adapted from Christianna Brand's books by Emma Thompson (who also plays the title character), is wildly colorful, funny, sweet and very, very British — and what more could one ask? Naughty (and nice) children of all ages, particularly little girls, should gobble this one up, and rightly so.

Colin Firth, looking a tad weary (as well he might, when you get to know his character), plays Mr. Brown, a widower and father of seven very, very naughty children. (Well, six are naughty; the jury's still out on baby Agatha.)

Led by ringleader Simon (Thomas Sangster, of "Love Actually," who has a wonderfully devilish grin), this out-of-control band gets up to the sort of mischief that may inspire a few questionable ideas in the audience: beheading their teddy bears, painting the piano keys, mashing up socks with the mashed potatoes.

Despite Mr. Brown's efforts, no nanny will stay in the household — until, on a dark night, Nanny McPhee arrives. Clearly this lady comes from the same magic-nanny-training school from whence Mary Poppins sprang, and there are certainly similarities in the two stories.

Nanny McPhee, like her counterpart, uses her powers to restore order to a household and to help the children realize their love for their family, and then vanishes, presumably off to another household in need. Perhaps the two of them meet between gigs, swapping stories over sherry at a nanny bar in the clouds.

Unlike Mary Poppins, though, Nanny McPhee is a bit alarming at first glance: a bulbous nose, a huge protruding tooth, a variety of moles and a trademark grunt. But her appearance changes as the movie progresses, and you wonder if we're merely seeing her through the children's eyes: As they grow to know and love her, she becomes more beautiful to them.

Thompson is, of course, steely-toned perfection as the nanny, who has an unnerving way of materializing in a room when you least expect her. Firth, who wears frock coats and sputters out lines like "I'm dreadfully late for a vital tea dance," is well-cast, as is Kelly Macdonald as the family's sweet scullery maid, Evangeline. (Listen closely to the newly educated Evangeline late in the film: Macdonald is impeccably channeling Audrey Hepburn in the second half of "My Fair Lady.") Angela Lansbury, absent from movies for many years, trumpets effectively as Mr. Brown's grim Aunt Adelaide.

And the kids are a kick, right down to the gurgling twin infants Hebe and Zinnia Barnes, who play Agatha and whose names clearly indicate that they're destined for greatness. I was particularly fond of a bespectacled middle brother in tweedy sweater vests who looks like a very small classics professor, and a moon-eyed little girl who fetchingly sighs, "I've always known I was destined for tragedy."

Enormous credit must be given here to production designer Michael Howells and costume designer Nic Ede, who've created a glorious joyride of color. The film is set vaguely in late Victorian/early Edwardian times, and the Brown's house is pure gingerbread, filled with bright splotches of color as if from a children's paintbox.

The final scene, in an enchanting August snowstorm conjured by Nanny McPhee, is truly magical; even grown-up children may well find their breath taken away.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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