Nanny McPhee is one of those raucous, hyperactive kiddie flicks that knocks you upside the head from its opening frame. In England, a handsome widower (Colin Firth) lives with his seven children, who are such brats that they’ve driven away 17 nannies, and the British toddler mischief gets shoved at the audience with wide-angle-lens coarseness, for that maximum annoying impact. Then, as the storm clouds gather, a magical new nanny arrives from up in the air. We’re cued to expect Mary Poppins, but instead, in walks Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), who has a witchy pair of facial warts, a hideous unibrow, a nose scuzzy and bulbous enough to belong to an ancient drunk, and a single bucktooth that hangs over her lower lip like a misnailed floorboard.
Yes, it’s the tough-love Mary Poppins. When the children fake measles, their new governess bangs her polished tree branch of a walking stick on the ground, and voilà! — they really get measles. The only cure is to swallow a supergross spoonful of what looks like squirmy live castor oil.
Thompson wrote the script for Nanny McPhee, adapting it from Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda books, and she plays the title role with her familiar saucy inflections, letting that voice undercut McPhee’s ugly-duckling appearance. Each time she teaches the kids a new lesson, a different flaw vanishes from her face. Yet there remains an odd glimmer of masochism to Thompson’s portrayal. After a while, the film introduces a new cartoon wretch — a powdered harridan who seems to have wandered in from a road production of Barry Lyndon: The Musical. She’s out to make Firth into her husband, and the movie, which is already too repetitive and too damn grotty, becomes about as appealing as a stale crumpet.