Heavenly Hag

Nanny McPhee becomes a thing of beauty.

Nanny McPhee Directed by Kirk Jones. Screenplay by Emma Thompson, from the Nurse Matilda books of Christianna Brand. Starring Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Celia Imrie, Thomas Sangster, and Angela Lansbury. Rated PG. Opens Friday.
There is evidently no limit to the sacrifices actors will make for their art. If you thought beautiful Charlize Theron went the distance by transforming herself into a bloated, scowling murderess for Monster, just wait till you and the kids get a load of Emma Thompson in the darkly amusing fantasy Nanny McPhee. Sporting a snaggle tooth, a prosthetic bulb nose, a faceful of warts, and a lumpy torso Lon Chaney might envy, the elegant star of Sense and Sensibility and Howards End comes on here like a horned toad -- at least until her title character's no-nonsense good works start to score points with the seven unruly children in her care and she begins to shed her deformities, one by one.

This is what is meant by a labor of love. Thompson, who hasn't been seen much onscreen since her parting from Kenneth Branagh, says she's long been an admirer of Christianna Brand's semi-obscure Nurse Matilda children's books of the 1960s, but it took her seven years to write this movie adaptation and get the film to theaters. When it was released last year in England, some commentators compared it to the most celebrated of all magical-nanny movies, Mary Poppins, and that would be fine if Mary Poppins had been co-written by a subversive like Roald Dahl and a bloodslinger like John Carpenter. For most of the way, there's almost no sunshine in Nanny McPhee (there is a good deal of wit), and the eponymous heroine is not about to sing "Chim Chim Cheree" to the little brats, who at one point claim to have cooked their baby sister and eaten her. That this besieged child-minder wins them over at all is testament to some stern police work and maybe a touch of witchcraft.

Extreme measures for extreme challenges. After all, this late-Victorian brood -- the sons and daughters of a recently widowed, comically baffled undertaker named Brown (Colin Firth) -- has put no fewer than 17 previous governesses to rout, the last of whom we see fleeing the Browns' ornate mansion in the movie's first scene.

A decade ago, Nanny McPhee's sometimes bleak tone might have been a no-no in the well-scrubbed world of kiddie flicks, but Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and the sinister imaginings of Tim Burton have loosened things up a great deal, for parents and for kids. It's hard to imagine any child older than six or seven not having a good time here, courtesy of the energetic Thompson, the fiendish teen ringleader of the Brown offspring (played by Thomas Sangster), and a splendid supporting cast that includes Angela Lansbury as a meddlesome aunt, Imelda Staunton as the family's vexed cook, Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow as a pair of sneaky undertaker's assistants, and Celia Imrie as the hideous merry widow -- Selma Quickly by name -- who has designs on the hapless Mr. Brown.

The movie's centerpiece is the anti-Poppins' steady transformation into someone who looks, well, like Emma Thompson at her best. If beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, this inventive movie brings that lesson home in no uncertain terms, on a cloud of delightful contrivance.

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