Nanny McPhee is a British film inspired by the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand. Released in 2005, and starring Emma Thompson in the title role, the film has similarities to Mary Poppins (1964) - it features a magical nanny who teaches naughty children how to behave and brings the family together - but with more death involved.
When you need me but don't want me, then I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go.
The Nurse Matilda books were about Mr and Mrs Brown and their extremely large number of children. The children were 'terribly, terribly naughty' so all the governesses who had been engaged to work with them could not cope. Only Nurse Matilda was not deterred by the children's antics - she gave them 'a taste of their own medicine' (for example, when they pretend to be ill so that they can stay in bed all day, Nurse Matilda taps her walking stick on the floor and discovers that they actually are ill so must take horrible-tasting medicine) and taught them seven lessons.
The screenplay of the film1 was written by Emma Thompson and begins soon after the death of Mrs Brown. Mr Brown tries to employ a nanny to look after his seven children while he is out at work as an undertaker, but none of the nannies can cope with the children's bad behaviour for long. After the 17th nanny leaves, Nanny McPhee arrives.
Nanny McPhee teaches the children five lessons (including saying 'Please' and 'Thank you'). They also learn much more from her when they encounter their formidable Aunt Adelaide, and the obnoxious widow Mrs Quickly, during their father's efforts to keep his family together in spite of financial difficulties and the threat of being sent to the workhouse. As the children's behaviour improves, Nanny McPhee's appearance becomes more attractive2.
Nanny McPhee was played by Emma Thompson, who had won the 1996 Academy Award for Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published for Sense and Sensibility3 as well as being the winner of the Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar in 1993 for playing Margaret Schlegel in Howard's End4. Her other film credits include roles in Peter's Friends (alongside her friend Stephen Fry) and Love Actually, among numerous others.
Colin Firth, who played Mr Brown, had also appeared in Love Actually and was known for his role as Mr Darcy in the 1995 television adaptation of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice as well as for playing Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001) and its sequels.
Simon, the eldest of the Brown children, was played by Thomas Sangster, who had also appeared in Love Actually. He went on to gain roles in the well-known TV series Wolf Hall and Game of Thrones, for example, and played Beatle Paul McCartney in the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy.
Eric Brown was the first acting role for Raphaël Coleman. After gaining a degree in Zoology, he became an environmental activist, but died in 2020 at the age of 25.
Tora Brown was played by Eliza Bennett, who has since played numerous roles in films and television series. The acting careers of Holly Gibbs (who played Christianna Brown), Samuel Honywood (Sebastian) and Jennifer Rae Daykin (Lily) were more limited. Baby Agatha Brown was the only acting role for twins Hebe and Zinnia Barnes.
Comic actor Patrick Barlow, who had appeared in Bridget Jones's Diary, plays undertaker Mr Jowls. His equally-camp colleague Mr Wheen is played by Sir Derek Jacobi, whose roles have ranged from Shakespearean characters to Vicious comedy via Cadfael and I Claudius.
Kelly Macdonald, who played scullery maid Evangeline, found fame in Trainspotting (1996), and played a reporter in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) among other roles. Imelda Staunton, who had appeared in Peter's Friends and Sense and Sensibility for example, played the cook Mrs Blatherwick. Angela Lansbury of Murder, She Wrote fame played Aunt Adelaide, and Celia Imrie, who appeared in Bridget Jones's Diary and worked with Victoria Wood on comedy TV programmes such as Dinnerladies, played Mrs Quickly.
Nanny McPhee is a family film that is both humorous and poignant in turns. The antics of the children are amusing, such as when they dressed farm animals in their best clothes, and the final food fight is funny. The supporting cast's comedic cameos are engaging to audiences of all ages. However, the fact that Mrs Brown's presence is felt only through the sight of her empty chair adds deep poignancy to the film in comparison with the original books.
The subplot introduced by Emma Thompson, in which Aunt Adelaide will only continue to provide financial support to her niece's family if Mr Brown marries again to someone unrelated to her, seems rather incongruous. However, when all is well in the end, as Mr Brown finds someone he has grown to love and who gets on well with the children, Nanny McPhee pays her respects to Mrs Brown's chair before she leaves5.
Nanny McPhee was released on DVD in 2006. Extras include short films about how Emma Thompson was transformed into Nanny McPhee, how the Browns' house was built, and how the child actors were recruited, plus deleted scenes (including an alternative beginning in which it is explicitly explained that Mr Brown's salary as an undertaker was not enough to support his large family and the household of servants, hence his wife Agatha's aunt Adelaide provided additional funds). There are also audio commentaries on the film - one by the director Kirk Jones, with the children, and one by Emma Thompson and the producer Lindsay Doran.
The film's success6 led to a sequel in 2010, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang/Nanny McPhee Returns, in which Nanny McPhee teaches two children (and their three cousins) five lessons while their father is away at war and their mother is running the family farm.