|By Fred Topel
In Theaters January 27
We can always count on the British to keep our kids in line. Whether it’s Mary Poppins or Sister Maria singing the tykes into compliance, or Nanny McPhee using her magic, the Brits always seem to know the trick. Emma Thompson, who stars as the title character of Nanny McPhee, doesn’t have it so easy with her kids.
“Generally speaking, I often will end up weeping on the floor saying that I need more help,” she admits. “I think that it's very difficult to know. You shouldn't shout at children because that's terrible and I have done that and I've always felt terrible. So I try not to shout and actually I think that the best way of getting past a phase is that you have to take your time. You wait until they go through whatever they go through. The trouble with being a parent is that grownups always have an agenda and we've always got something new to do next. Children don't have that, and if we can just take the pedal off of your agenda and say, 'Okay, this is more important than the fact that I need the post or to get the wash into the washing machine.' Because I do live what one would consider a normal life, but I do have that thing that all mothers have which is that there's always the next thing. It's like the wash, dinner and there's an urgency to that I find and my greatest method for being a mother is trying to understand that it's more important to stop and give it space and that's actually what Nanny McPhee does. She's a space lender.”
You won’t recognize glamorous Emma Thompson in the role, as she sports a big nose, two words and a buck tooth hanging down her chin. “I had a lot of interesting experiences with that makeup because when it first went on, Peter King who's wonderful and just won an Oscar for Lord of the Rings, he put it on me and first of all it worked. The children didn't know that it was me. We just said, 'Nanny McPhee is here.' I would walk in and they were like, 'Huh. Nanny.' I said, 'Hello. What are you doing? What's your name?' It was rather formal and well behaved and then one of the little ones said, 'What have you done with Emma?' I said, 'I've had her killed.' Then they knew it was me. They knew that no grownup would ever say anything so terrible but me. So they knew me well by then. They said, 'It's you.'’”
Thompson wrote the script for Nanny McPhee, based on a series of out of print children’s books called Nurse Mathilde. “It was an odd genesis because I found a book, and I read it when I was little, but it wasn't one of my favorites. But I found it when I was dusting actually. I found it on the bookshelf and read it. I look at this strange dumpy woman on the front with these huge teeth and I was like, 'I think that I remember that book.' And I thought that there was something about this that would make a good film because visually that thing of someone changing is interesting and it being completely subliminal and so you're not sure why, and because film is so much to do with perfection and how differently you can feel about someone at the beginning of the film and the end of the film. I thought that something like this would be easy to adapt. Well, in fact it was more difficult because there's not in fact a narrative in the book. I suddenly discovered that I just agreed to write this and there wasn't a story.”
Some minor changes include killing off the leading man’s wife to give him a problem for the film, and then whittling down the group of over 30 children to a more manageable seven. Then she gave Dad a job as an undertaker, thus surrounding her children’s film with themes of death.
“The thing that was most difficult about this film was the tone. The point about death being present, one of the things that we were doing when we were putting the film together was find exactly how much of that we could use and where it worked because children understand much better than we do that life and death exist together simultaneously. As you grow older and try to make sense of it all, which is why we tell stories, we try to sort of pack ourselves in with something so that we feel safer. Therefore in doing so our tectonic plates start to solidify and nothing shifts anymore. But children are always moving. They understand that sometimes death comes and it can be like that. They're not angry about death. They're angry about no communication. No time and no listening. They're angry about the really sensible things. So finding those layers and where you could sort of bring in some slapstick [was a challenge.]”
Even when slapstick involved bugs and food fights, there were mature themes involved. The children try to stop their father from marrying a gold digger just to give them an arbitrary mother figure. “Even in the slapstick scene, what was underneath that was a profoundly predatory sexual woman. It's quite kind of barren really in a way and I like all that. I think that children absolutely understand it. We could've done it very wrong though. I don't know what guiding principle made it come together at the end, but it is that very long, slow process where as you write you just shave a little there and add a little bit on there and then as you shoot it we would shoot Nanny McPhee being funny, being serious, being menacing, being dramatic. We would shoot in a lot of different ways so that we'd have those choices.”
But don’t worry, it’s still PG. “You can't just say stuff and go, 'Well, that's fine for kids.' I'm not interesting in writing like that, and I'm not interested in making something that's just quick, quick, quick. [We think] kids these days want something sharp and hard because they're used to MTV and you think, 'No, they're not.' I actually sat in audiences with children who've perhaps not had the kind of educational upbringing that has developed, but nonetheless they sit pinned like butterflies to the back of their chair to that story because it contains thing matter to them and that matter to their parents as well.”
So take your kids to see Nanny McPhee February 27.