Unlike the iconic Mary Poppins (1964), Nanny McPhee is far from "perfect in every way". Still Emma Thompson is a treat as the eponymous childminder. She also penned this adaptation of Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda book series about a brood of unruly children who meet their match in a mysterious nanny. Seven years after Waking Ned, director Kirk Jones takes the helm with a quirky sensibility that helps make up for a lack of memorable magic tricks.
When McPhee taps her walking cane strange things happen, but sadly nothing as jaw dropping as Poppins bringing a chalk drawing to life or having an army of toy soldiers pack themselves away. Instead the Brown children (the most of stubborn of all played by Thomas Sangster) are chastised in comparatively mundane fashion, like being pinned to their beds after faking sickness. It's hardly action-packed stuff, but the dynamics between the children, McPhee and their widowed father (Colin Firth) make for an involving, poignant fable.
Naturally the children are missing the attention of their grief-stricken father and, in an intriguing subplot, he's also blind to the affections of servant girl Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald). Playing the moneyed aunt who forces Brown to remarry (or lose the family house), Angela Lansbury is brilliantly batty while Imelda Staunton is a picture of pantomime silliness as the Browns' fretful cook. Amid the chaos, Thompson provides a solid anchor, occasionally harrumphing her disapproval but otherwise eerily still. In a sense McPhee is the anti-Poppins with her ugly snaggletooth and sour demeanour, but her good intentions are never in doubt. She's sure to keep the kids happy for at least an hour and a half.