This is what is meant by a labor of love. Thompson, who hasn't been seen much onscreen since her parting with 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 childminder 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' gaudy, Hogwarts-esque 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.
Director Kirk Jones, who poured on the charm in the rural Irish fantasy Waking Ned Devine, has a nice way with his younger cast members (Thompson obviously knows how to handle herself), and he's given his film a look Burton himself might enjoy an eye-popping chaos of colors that suggests Merry Olde Englande on hallucinogens and an array of rococo costumes (designed by Nic Ede) that suggest the happy excesses of Brazil. I'm not familiar with the Nurse Matilda series (Brand also wrote adult-aimed whodunits like Green for Danger), but Thompson has evidently preserved the literary nanny's preternatural wisdom, her mystical powers (she can even make children sick if they don't behave), and her capacity for cutting straight to the heart of the matter. "Do the children say 'please' and 'thank you'?" Nanny McPhee asks. "In what context?" their beleaguered father answers. The quandary of every bewildered parent.
Amid the darkness, Thompson and Jones manage to insert a good deal of standard kiddie-movie slapstick, spiced with whimsy we've got animals dressed in human clothing, a magical midsummer snowstorm, and a wedding that erupts into a spirited custard-pie fight, all of which should delight younger kids. The movie's centerpiece, though, has to be the anti-Poppins' steady transformation from monstrous grotesque into someone who looks very much like, 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.