Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (aka Nanny McPhee Returns) (2010)

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (aka Nanny McPhee Returns) first published by Sight & Sound, June 2010

Review: Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), witch-like governess extraordinaire to those who need her, is back, with a magical cane in place of Mary Poppins‘ umbrella, and a jackdaw familiar named Edelweiss to compensate for her inability to sing like Maria von Trapp. Her first cinematic outing, in 2005, was loosely adapted by Thompson from all three of Christianne Brand’s Nurse Matilda novels, but in this sequel, taking place some 80 years after the events of the first, the only remaining link to either the books or the original film, apart from the character and modus operandi of McPhee herself, is the delightfully dotty old Mrs Docherty (Maggie Smith), who turns out to be the nanny’s one-time ward Baby Agatha Brown, now all grown up as living proof of the lasting efficacy of McPhee’s child-rearing methods (if confusing cowpats for cushions can be called an educational success). 

Not that Susanna White’s Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (aka Nanny McPhee Returns) is all original. The war-time setting evokes Five Children and It (2004) and the Narnia films, some CG-tweaked piglets recall Babe (1995) and Charlotte’s Web (2006), while the emphasis on ‘ginger beer’ as a picnic treat points to the decidedly Blyton-esque quality of all these wholesome outdoor adventures. The titular ‘Big Bang’ denotes not the beginnings of the physical universe, nor some unspeakable sex act (although children do share their beds with livestock), but rather Edelweiss’ massive eructation after he has eaten ‘explosive putty’ – which is to say that Thompson’s screenplay is as concerned with what her young audience wants as with what it needs, never hesitating to exploit the opportunities afforded by the film’s farm setting for endless gags about mud and manure, and for animal antics aplenty.   

White and Thompson may have slyly didactic intentions, but they never forgets to entertain – much like McPhee herself, whose five improving lessons for the three Green children and their two visiting Gray cousins come packaged with plenty of fun. Accordingly, when McPhee bestows magical powers upon a sextet of escaped piglets because she does not want the children’s newly cooperative efforts at recapturing them to be ‘too easy’, she still sees fit to have the animals engage in a performance of synchronised swimming, much to the children’s amazement and delight. If these pigs never quite fly, Thompson finds less conventional ways to advertise her film’s fantasy remit. Even that giant, title-making jackdaw’s burp will serve not only to blast away some villains and to restore profit, order and unity to the farm, but also to furnish an entirely gratuitous spectacle of aerial entertainment for all onlookers (us included). 

Though more fleshed out than in the first film, McPhee herself remains an enigmatic, if benign, figure, but perhaps the film’s biggest mystery comes in the casting of Maggie Gyllenhaal (who has previously worked with Thompson in Stranger Than Fiction) as put-upon mother/narrator Isabel Green – not that the American actress in any way falls short as an English rose. For the most part, the film weaves its spell, flitting lightly over conflicts of class and gender without ever settling into anything like seriousness. Here, apparently even death itself can be overcome with just a bit of magic and a lot of faith. It is all a little inconsequential – but that is not to say that there will not be another sequel.  

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Synopsis: England, the 1940s. With her husband Rory off at war, Isabel Green has been left with three young children (Norman, Megsie and Vincent) to rear, bills to pay, a farm to run, and a batty employer (Mrs Docherty) at the village store. The early arrival of the children’s snobbish city cousins Cyril and Celia – less evacuees than exiles from their parents’ divorce – only compounds Isabel’s problems, as does sustained pressure to sell the farm from her brother-in-law Phil, who is desperate to clear his gambling debts with mafiosa Mrs Biggles before her henchwomen Miss Topsey and Miss Turvey take his kidney. Fortunately Nanny McPhee steps in with her magical staff, quickly teaching the children to stop fighting and share nicely. 

When Phil lets loose the prize piglets that Isabel needs to sell to Farmer MacReadie, the children work together in their recovery, even after the animals have been invested by McPhee with miraculous climbing and swimming powers. A celebratory picnic is interrupted by Phil with a telegram announcing Rory’s death in action. Convinced that his father is still alive, Norman races off with Cyril on the sidecar of McPhee’s motorcycle to London, where they visit Cyril’s father Lord Gray in the War Office. He reveals that Rory is only missing in action, and that no telegram was ever sent. Megsie, Celia and Vincent do their utmost to stop Isabel signing the property over to Phil, finally aided by McPhee’s magic. Just as Norman and Cyril arrive back, an unexploded bomb lands, causing a terrified Phil to confess that he forged the telegram. The children bravely defuse the bomb themselves, helped by McPhee’s jackdaw familiar which ingests some explosive putty. Its resulting burp blasts away Topsey and Turvey, and harvests the barley into neat haystacks. As McPhee departs, Rory returns.      

strap: Written by and starring Emma Thomson, Susanna White’s magical sequel goes all Mary Poppins on wartime domestic dysfunction in rural England

Anton Bitel