This story starts with an empty chair, which is a pity but every story has to begin somewhere. The chair was in the household of Mr Brown (Colin Firth) who had become a widower recently, leaving him with seven children to support which forced him to hire a nanny. Or two. Or three. Or seventeen - no matter who he recruits to look after his little horrors they chase her off, and the latest and sternest from the agency was victim to a screaming fit after the children convinced her they had eaten baby Agatha. What can he do now? After all, with no one to look after the anarchic tykes he will have to do it himself, to the detriment of his work...
The Nurse Matilda books of Christianna Brand might not be the most celebrated of children's literature, and indeed they were all long out of print when Emma Thompson decided to adapt them into this, but that might have been down to the similarities between one nanny and another - few could resist drawing parallels with the far better known Mary Poppins. There were differences of course, but nevertheless Nanny McPhee was very much in the shadow of both the P.L. Travers novels and the Disney adaptation which came along later. It was telling that this variation on the magical nanny theme did not oust the earlier from the affections of moviegoers, but it was by no means a disaster.
There was actually much to engage here, with Thompson taking the title role not as some prim yet wacky personality, but to contrast with the mayhem going on around her a curiously still and calm presence in the face of the other, broader characters. McPhee shows up in the lives of the Browns when dad is at his wits' end, his undertakers' business not offering the cash flow to sustain him and rendering him at the mercy of his dead wife's Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury in a false nose) who supplies him with funds but will do so no longer unless he can find a new wife within the month. Trouble is, he knows of no suitable candidates, or doesn't think he does for we can see his housemaid Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald) would make a nice choice.
Mr Brown is so wrapped up in his troubles he cannot perceive the solutions are on his doorstep, but with the new nanny arriving there's now someone about who can act as a catalyst to his eventual happiness - no, she's not getting rid of the kids, she's going to teach them to behave better. This she does with Poppins-esque magic, but doesn't belabour her methods, and indeed after a couple of supernatural setpieces she is more likely to make suggestions and point the other characters in the right direction than cast a spell with a thump of her cane on the floor. First the younglings must be taught a lesson in manners, naturally, and they must be made aware that they're doing more harm than good by acting up, no matter how much they are missing their mother.
That doesn't mean the magic dries up completely, as Nanny McPhee has a habit of materialising when she hasn't been noticed entering the room, she is wise as if she's in fact some kind of goddess deigning to grace the mortals with her presence, and her physical features change depending on how many lessons the children have learnt. She is always keen to point out in her serene fashion it is they who have the potential to make things better or worse, so they never rely on her utterly, just enough to guide them, which was in marked contrast to Poppins' more hands on approach. Not that this was strictly entertainment for polite children who would rather be reading the book, as there was a whole load of slapstick and exaggerated playing - Celia Imrie as the inappropriate fiancée had a field day - combined with a bright, garish colour palette to keep the interest up for those less likely to take their moral lessons without a spoonful of sugar, even if sentiment was not entirely kept at bay. Music by Patrick Doyle.