Posted at 4:54 PM on January 24, 2006
by Euan Kerr
Britons of a certain age share a unique bond with Emma Thompson. For several years her father Eric was the brains and the voice behind a cult children's television show called "The Magic Roundabout."
It was a stop-animation series about the adventures of a group of friends who lived around the afore-mentioned roundabout. The program was actually French, but somehow Eric Thompson got permission to take the visuals and add his own dialog. The shows were each about five minutes long, and he used to watch them over and over again to work out what he should have the characters say. Thus British children were treated to a a hilariously arrogant sugar-cube addicted dog named Dougal, with a mild-mannered brainy snail called Brian as his sidekick, a stoner rabbit named Dylan, a love addled pink cow called Ermintrude, and a magic jack-in-the box escapee called Zebedee who ended every episode by declaring "Time for bed!"
The show ran weeknights in the early evening, just before the 6 O'Clock News on the BBC, and grown adults used to leave work early to make sure they were back home in time to watch with their kids (and often without them too.)
So there is an element of nostalgia to watching "Nanny McPhee" the new family comedy with a screenplay by Eric Thompson's daughter, which opens this weekend. It gets even better because she is playing the title role too.
While Emma Thompson is a great actor with grace and charm, what sets her apart is her stare. It's very enigmatic, and totally arresting. She appears to have the ability to stare right inside your head, even as you sit in an audience, and you can't tell whether she likes what she's seeing in there. It's a stare she uses regularly and to great effect throughout "Nanny McPhee."
There is a Mary Poppins aspect to the story of the magical "government nanny" who arrives to take care of a rural undertaker widower's seven unruly children. The children resist of course, but with the aid of a magical walking stick, she wins them over. There are all the requisite adult humiliations, dancing animals and a couple of good foodfights.
Yet these is a harder edge too to the film which makes the story even more engaging. There are brief forays into the implications of losing a parent, of the hard choices which have to be made to keep a family together, and of the necessity of thinking for yourself and accepting the consequences. And Thompson on the occasions when she makes the children bad, doesn't flinch from making them really bad, even resulting in a brief dalliance with cannibalism.
Colin Firth is expertly inept as the children's father struggling so hard to keep the financial ship afloat that he fails to see how they need him in other ways too. The cast is jam-packed with a host of superb actors playing supporting roles, from Angela Lansbury as the battle-axe aunt and Imelda Staunton as the beseiged cook, to Derek Jacobi as the undertakers assistant, and Kelly MacDonald as the scullery maid love interest.
The children do well too, both as terrorists and as reasonable people. Thomas Sangster, perhaps best known in the US for playing Liam Neeson's son in "Love Actually," leads the gang, and neatly avoids the child actor pitfalls of saccharine and mawkishness.
In "Nanny McPhee" Thompson delivers the goods, both in humor and a just a touch of family life philosophy. This movie will keep both children and parents engaged. If it was on the telly, I'd head home from work early too just to see it