Saturday, April 03, 2010

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang

My wife and I sat watching the first ten minutes or so of Nanny McPhee's second outing with a feeling of embarrassment. Everything is so over the top, you feel a major sense of cringe coming on. The farm children are forever fighting at the beginning for no particular reason (which is odd, since they don't have any problem cooperating later in the movie - even given Nanny's big sort-out early in the piece), and their mother screams and yells and acts like a child herself. Presumably she's at her wits' end. So, I suspect, were most of the audience at that point. What the heck is wrong with her, they must have been saying...

And then we're introduced to the snobby cousins from London, at which point director Susanna White spends far too long having everyone falling over in the mud (more than once, usually) or chasing each other around the poo-filled farm, or going indoors and beating each other up. If we hadn't paid $16 apiece we might have left this noisy brood to it. Even the stormy-night arrival of Nanny McPhee doesn't much help - at first. And then suddenly everything (well, almost everything) comes right, the film mostly settles down into a tone that works for it, there are some wonderful laugh-out-loud moments, plenty of absurdities, and room for the kids to show that they can actually act.

Susanna White has done plenty of television work, but here seems somehow overwhelmed by the amount of room she's got to play with. In spite of my positive comments in the last paragraph, she forces Rhys Ifans (usually a wonderfully subtle comic actor - compare this performance to the one we saw on TV last night in Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) and Maggie Gyllenhaal to go over the same material almost endlessly, until you want to scream, 'For goodness' sake, get on with it!' Some scenes are just padded out beyond their ability to survive.

Emma Thompson, however, saves the scenes she's in, which have both that wonderful calm and gentle humour she brings to this particular role, and Ralph Fiennes as the Uncle in the War Office, seethes with some terrifying passion beneath his steely exterior, as though he was actually Voldemort in disguise, and had somehow got into the wrong movie. Maggie Smith, however, is not only woefully underused, but also made to do something in one scene which is extraordinarily undignified. (It's also interesting how our view of a character with a degree of dementia has now changed. In earlier movies they were often seen - as also here - as comic characters to be played for all the possible laughs. Now, with the excessive numbers of people with dementia or Alzheimer's in the world, such humour is being increasingly seen as out of place. )

So, a bit of a mixed bag. Not a film that Ifans or Gyllenhaal might look back on with much endearment, and possibly a steep learning curve for White. Excellent CGI (when isn't it excellent these days?) and some good performances.
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