“Sequel-itis" is not something uncommon in the film industry. A successful film, often when it’s a genre flick, is rarely safe from spawning – a usually inferior – sequel. In the wake of this trend Emma Thompson penned a sequel to her success from 2005, Nanny McPhee. There’s nothing significantly unusual about Nanny McPhee. We know that she will arrive to a lot of misbehaved, but inherently good, children; we know she will change them for the better and we know that when her task is complete she will leave. Yet, Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang does not suffer from being a slipshod reincarnation of its original. Inasmuch as we’re willing to watch Superheroes conquer villain after villain, Nanny McPhee succeeds in the same way. And, it is in this realm that this manifestation of the tale exists as one superior to its predecessor.
The story centres on Isabel Green, a young Englishwoman with three children tending to her husband’s farm as he fights at war. Her niece and nephew’s arrival (ostensibly, for safety purpose) casts the already troubled household into chaos. All this ensues, whilst her wily brother-in-law hopes to gain the property for some nefarious reasons. It in this state that Nanny McPhee magically appears (although her appearance will be explained as we continue), and in her usual way delivers caustic, concise but nonetheless thoughtful words. The usual machinations occur, all leading to an imminent pleasurable ending for the good. But (and this is a big “but”) Nanny McPhee is not a cliché and is rooted in more than the pedestrian.
It does not function as a “prestige” flick in the normal sense of the word, but Nanny McPhee boasts credible performances from its cast. Like its thematic predecessors (Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music) it depends significantly on its young cast, who do the script justice. The five actors, particularly the two older boys give good performances particularly Asa Butterfield who avoids the easiest of stereotypes emerging as a somewhat more composed version of Freddie Highmore (and I like Freddie Highmore). However, it is Maggie Gyllenhaal as the beleaguered mother who sets the tone for much of the film. With eons more charisma than her Oscar nominated work in Crazy Heart Gyllenhaal delivers an excellent performance. It is easily the warmest she’s been onscreen and she uses her particularly expressive eyes to her benefit.
I would presume under the watchful eyes of Thompson’s excellently played McPhee Gyllenhaal realises the charm to be found in the story, most of which can be traced back to its screenplay and Thompson’s adroit skill for being whimsical. Things like an incidental (but still oddly profound) final word from Maggie Smith in a cameo-esque bit of fun, or the slight ways in which Nanny McPhee sagely recounts the “lessons” we’ve learned thus far. Nanny McPhee identifies as something of a fairytale, but still not something that’s only a figment of our imagination. It is not primarily a film that depends on messages, even though the third act falters slightly in trying to teach us too much, but its style is enchanting and message to parents is not difficult to unearth (like Ralph Fiennes workaholic dad in a delicious cameo). I am uncertain what the faith of Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang will be when it opens later in the Summer in the US. I fear, that something so fanciful may be forgotten amidst all the visceral thrills to be had later in the season. But, Nanny McPhee is made with care and delivered with spirit. It is not necessarily a story for children, but it is a story for the child in us all.