"You are very clever.  You can work it out."  So says Nanny McPhee to seven unruly brothers and sisters in 2005's Nanny McPhee, the first film in a family-friendly franchise which now continues with the hilarious and heartwarming Nanny McPhee Returns.

As the mysterious and magical nanny who appeared on the doorstep of a widower and his naughty children the first time around, Nanny McPhee and her walking stick are back to address a new set of problems—but this time in a non-specific, "sort-of 1940s" war era.   

"She's such a fascinating character," shares Emma Thompson who brings Nanny McPhee to life once again on-screen and also wrote the original screenplay as well as executive produced.  "I wouldn't have done another one, I don't think, if I wasn't really interested in exploring and playing her again.  Of course, because I write [the films], I have such a fascination with how the whole thing comes together.  It's an incredibly satisfying endeavor."

Based on a character from the 1960s' "Nurse Matilda" children's book series by Christianna Brand, Nanny McPhee featured the collection's best stories which Thompson mined and adapted to create the script.  In Nanny McPhee Returns, however, there wasn't much material left to use and so the two-time Academy Award winner had to start from scratch, taking much care to preserve the spirit of the original material over a three-year writing period.

Same Nanny, Different Family

In Nanny McPhee Returns, the story begins with Mrs. Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young mother of three school-age children (Norman, Megsie and Vincent) who are headstrong and quarrelsome.  She's desperately trying to hold down the family farm in the English countryside and work a day job while her husband Rory (Ewan McGregor) is away at war and hasn't been heard from in months.  Adding another layer to thicken the plot, Mrs. Green's shifty brother-in-law Phil (Rhys Ifans) is trying to pressure her into selling him her husband's half of the family farm.  And on top of that, she receives a telegram with the terrible news that Mr. Green has been killed in the war—something that everyone grieves and initially believes except for Norman, who "feels it in his bones" that his dad is still alive.  The Green family could definitely use a little help—and a little Nanny McPhee and whatever lessons she has to present to a new group of children. 

Whereas the main conflict in Nanny McPhee was between a father and his children, in Nanny McPhee Returns the warring involves the Green children and their posh London cousins (Celia and Cyril Gray) who have come to live with them for an unlimited stay.  Upon introduction, Nanny McPhee repeats her well-known phrase:  "When you need me, but do not want me, then I must stay.  When you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go."  She then assesses the Green vs. Gray battle and helps bring some order to the household with five lessons:  to stop fighting, to share nicely, to help each other, to be brave and to have faith.

"What I'm trying to do," explains Thompson when crafting screenplays, "is make stories that are enjoyable and funny while not ignoring or turning away from the fact that life is complicated.


"I think that the fact that Nanny McPhee offers slightly unconventional, often subversive, and witty solutions—or at least often will bring up a problem to solve—often helps.  She offers [the children] a problem that they have to solve together, and she makes that problem diverting and amusing and delightful—but also a very real problem.  It's in them coming together and it's in dealing with this problem that they take the first steps toward uniting as a group and as a family."

In fact, by the end of this latest installment, the children are working so well together, that they tackle a most unimaginable, only-happens-in-the-movies type of problem:  assisting Megsie while she diffuses a bomb in a barley field.  A real, live unexploded bomb.  "She decides she can do it, and she does it," Thompson explains.  "And I love that!"

Beyond the Magic and Mischief

Surprisingly, in what seems to be (on the surface) a more lighthearted family film, Nanny McPhee Returns doesn't shy away from heavier issues such as absence, divorce and the uncertainty of the family farm's future.  And certainly these real-life situations weigh on the young children and no doubt contribute to their acting out and contentious behavior.