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She's Your Nanny: Emma Thompson's Back in Nanny McPhee Returns

  • Laura MacCorkle Senior Editor
  • 2010 18 Aug
She's Your Nanny:  Emma Thompson's Back in <i>Nanny McPhee Returns</i>

"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. 

"It's self-evident that children have to deal with weighty themes very, very often," says Thompson.  "And while there is that sort of mantra that says they're adaptable … they're also very good at hiding what they feel.  I don't want to make a film that says to children that the world is perfect, and you're not going to encounter any difficulties. … In a sense, I'm trying for these films to hand over the power and the ideas and the initiative to the children."

In that spirit, Nanny McPhee never solves the children's problems, but only nudges them in the right direction so that they may work them out on their own as they take ownership of their choices and begin to see that their actions do indeed have consequences.

As in the first film, when the children meet Nanny McPhee, her initial appearance is quite startling.  A wart here, a wart there.  Freakishly long earlobes.  A single eyebrow.  A bumpy and bulbous nose.  And a protruding "tomb stone" tooth that sits atop her lower lip.

While her image—and the way that it changes from hideous to beautiful, as each lesson is learned by the children—is never explained in the film, Thompson likens the transformation to a Norwegian proverb:  "That which is loved is always beautiful."

"The interesting thing to do is to watch [Nanny McPhee Returns] with a bunch of kids and to ask them what they think," she suggests.  "A lot of kids say that it is because they love her more.  I think that that is one of the most important things about the film.  She's beautiful from the beginning, but you can't see it."

Special Co-stars and Effects

While Nanny McPhee's physical transformation is achieved primarily through standard hair, makeup and costuming wizardry, CGI was utilized to "increase the visual magic" of the movements of many of her animal co-stars.  Director Susanna White, making her feature film debut, brought her experience using CGI (television's Generation Kill) to enhance scenes that include a fantastical menagerie:  a burping jackdaw named Mr. Edelweiss, piglets who excel in synchronized swimming, a snoring baby elephant that sweetly stays on its side of the bed, and much more.

A cast of animals made a big impression on young filmgoers the first time around and add a touch of whimsy and comic relief to the Nanny McPhee Returns storyline as well.  But Thompson also hopes that older moviegoers will also have some fun takeaway, and some meatier food for thought as well.

"I've made something for groups of all ages to enjoy together that's got lots in it that they can talk about afterward, ‘cause that's what I used to do when I was a kid.  Seeing a film or watching a western or something on television, knowing that my parents were enjoying it as well, gave me so much pleasure.  And then having a talk about it afterward over maybe a hamburger or something like that—it was one of the great joys of my life, and that's what I've tried to make for people."

Let's Go to the Movies!

Indeed, Nanny McPhee Returns can be a family experience and viewed as perhaps a lesson in itself for parents who are struggling in their own households, as they try to spend quality time with their children and have discussions that will lead to lessons being imparted, and learned.

"We're so busy," admits Thompson, herself a parent of a ten-year-old daughter.  "But we are multi-tasking which is equivalent to being distracted.  It really is a question of being present, I think.  And I think it's a tremendous challenge.  And I say that without any judgment or, indeed, sense of superiority, because I certainly can't manage it all the time—and it's something that I think about a lot."

Hopefully, as school is getting back in session, families will think about taking time to see Nanny McPhee Returns together and be reminded that while each of us may not solve all of the world's problems—or perhaps diffuse a bomb—that life is always worth trying to work out.

Rated PG (for rude humor, some language and mild thematic elements) and starring Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans and Dame Maggie Smith, Nanny McPhee Returns releases wide in theaters on August 20, 2010.  For more information, please visit

Photos © Universal Pictures.  Used with permission.

To watch scenes of each of the five lessons given by Nanny McPhee in Nanny McPhee Returns, click here.

**This article first published on August 18, 2010.