“This is the British Museum of poo,” announces Cyril (Eros Vlahos), as he and his perfectly pale sister Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) arrive at the farm owned by their Aunt Isabel (Maggie Gyllenhaal). He makes his assessment after stepping from his mummy’s car into a veritable sea of muck, the camera offering close-ups of his feet in the brownness as well a couple of reaction shots of his smudgy-faced cousins, whom he deems “poooo people,” with emphasis on the first word.
As these cousins—Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods), and Vincent (Oscar Steer)—have previously been revealed as decent sorts, capable of cleaning stalls, feeding cows, and scrubbing pink piglets’ bellies, you’re given to see the golden-curled Cyril as a bit of a snob, fond of marshmallow candies and used to getting his way. Thus, Nanny McPhee Returns establishes standard class differences between the country cousins and the city cousins—even as both sets of children are in need of retraining by the daunting Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson).
And indeed, when she does make her appearance, a few scenes later, the children are going at one another in a full throttle sort of way, pulling hair, slapping and swinging, generally smacking down. Nanny McPhee arrives on Izzie’s doorstep, proclaims herself an Army Nanny who’s been “deployed,” and glides past the existentially harried mom (“I’m managing perfectly well,” she’s protested, feebly), en route to the room where the children are holding forth. Once inside, she suggests they listen to her carefully, which they do not. And so she pounds the floor with her magic stick—and, much like the Brown brood in the first film—the children are alarmed into quiet, if miffed and slightly skeptical, obedience.
Which is not to say this sequel is precisely the same as the first. Here the context for the children’s acting out is not just the admittedly traumatizing prospect of dad’s new wife. In fact, Izzie is a single parent only for the moment, though it’s a long moment, to be sure, as her husband Rory (Ewan McGregor) is away at war. As Izzie struggles to keep up payments on the tractor, bring in the barley harvest, and put food on the proverbial table, she has also agreed to a visit by her niece and nephew, whose home in London is at risk of bombing.
This broad condition of national disarray means that all the children are fretful for good reasons, though, this being a Nanny McPhee movie, their problems will all be solved by a bit of discipline and magical entertainments. As before, Nanny McPhee promises that she will only stay while unwanted but needed, and leave when wanted but unneeded, and again, her “ugly” outward appearance—with moles and crooked teeth and wide hips—melts away into Mary-Poppinsy loveliness as her charges learn their lessons.
There are five of these, each named by Nanny McPhee once it’s learned (“to stop fighting,” “to share,” etc.) and each delivered with the help of digitized furniture or animals (so, learning to share involves sleeping in beds with a cow, goat, and elephant, all stepping neatly up Izzie’s staircase while she putters in the kitchen, wholly unaware that her household is so invaded or transformed. (She does crinkle her nose to indicate she’s smelled something odious, or at least out of place.)
Even as the children are increasingly generous and cooperative, their efforts to help Izzie save the farm are countered by her egregiously self-absorbed brother-in-law, Phil (Rhys Ifans). A gambler, he’s bet the farm he only half owns and lost it. As a result, he spends most of his time conniving to pay off by a pair of scary lady collectors. The cartoonish villainy of Miss Topsey (Sinead Matthews) and Miss Turvy (Katy Brand) sets them quite apart, thank you, from the delightful, hardworking, and infinitely patient Izzie.
As Nanny McPhee’s appearance is the measure of her effectiveness, so too her supporting players’ morality is indicated by how they look: the snooty cousins must learn to feel comfortable in farm clothes (rubber galoshes and plaid shirts), Phil’s suit is too-fancy and cheap at the same time, and the collectors’ bright red lipstick and fakely blond hair are blatant signs of their depravity. Izzie, on the other hand, is a sweetheart of a farm girl, clomping about in her knee-high galoshes and assortment of patterned sweaters, wool skirts, and a delightful lime green coat that she drops into spilled syrup, thus attracting an assortment of leaves and twigs by the time she walks home from work in the sweets shop. She couldn’t be more down to earth.
But as warm and enchanting as Izzie may be (in large part because Gyllenhaal is so utterly irresistible in the role), she’s rather stuck playing the clueless parent. Nanny McPhee’s taking charge—of the plot as well as the kids—means that Izzie spends too much time looking completely surprised or vaguely worried, and certainly too easily duped by the annoying doofus Phil. Even her friendship with Mrs. Docherty (Maggie Smith) doesn’t quite grant her an adult relationship, as Izzie is mostly left to look after her employer, whose doddering old-lady ineptitude is amusing enough for seven-year-olds, but may wear thin for their parents.
Nanny McPhee treats everyone like a child, of course, and that only leaves Izzie looking that much more alone. Indeed, when she fears she’s lost even the hope of Rory’s return, she drops to her knees, her breathing turns shallow, and her eyes begin to dart. While it’s not unexpected, the moment is also remarkable, not only because Gyllenhaal distills into a few precious seconds a combination of utterly visceral pain and loss, but also because, as the camera pulls out, her solitude as a single woman in the British countryside in wartime is devastatingly visible.