A Good Crone Atones

Children’s franchise recovers with polished sequel

A vast improvement over the 2005 franchise introduction of co-writer/actress Emma Thompson’s Mary-Poppinsish household savior, Nanny McPhee Returns finds modern-day meaning in its World War II-era English trappings. Gone is the garish fluorescent neon color palate and mean-spirited themes that attended the poorly contrived initial installment. Where Nanny McPhee was based on the first of Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda books, the sequel departs from the series to find the diabolically ugly nanny coming to the aid of struggling farm-owner Isabel Green (excellently played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Her husband (Ewan McGregor) away at war, Isabel has her hands full with three children and two visiting hoity-toity London cousins.

With her handy magical cane and unsightly unibrow, McPhee arrives to make good on her promise to teach the unruly children her “five lessons” that will leave the family members “wanting,” but not “needing,” her continued service.

A constant threat of foreclosure is conveyed daily by Isabel’s shady brother-in-law, Phil (Rhys Ifans), whose unpaid gambling debts include his half of the farm. Pursued by two dubious “hit women” debt collectors who threaten to relieve Phil of his kidneys unless he pays up, Phil tries desperately to get Isabel to sign away her half of the farm. The circumstances are right out of 2010, when families are losing their homes while family members serve in far-away wars.

Director Susanna White sculpts rather than hammers the themes that magically remove McPhee’s unsightly features one-by-one as her lessons are gradually adhered to by the children. Gooey-eyed reveries of talented piglets that climb trees and do synchronized swimming give the movie an innocent flair of magical influence. Simon Elliott’s production design is beautifully detailed and allows the viewer to savor everything that cinematographer Mike Eley (Touching the Void) allows into the frame of largely Oxfordshire locations.

The story’s emphasis is as much on children taking responsibility for their actions as it is about adults owning up for theirs. The film’s defining sequence finds newly bonded cousins chaperoned to London’s War Office in McPhee’s trusty sidecar motorcycle to meet with Lord Gray (Ralph Fiennes) about Mr. Green’s war status. The boys speak with a disarming sincerity that melts your heart. Braveness too is on McPhee’s list of must-have qualities, and it isn’t exhibited in a way that you might expect. There’s more than a little movie magic here and some very tidy performances from Gyllenhaal and Thompson to boot.

Nanny McPhee Returns (PG-13) ★★★☆☆