Animated films may come to dominate the family-film genre but they’ll never entirely edge out their live-action counterparts -- not so long as there exist characters like Nanny McPhee whose charms could never be properly rendered in a computer. After a half-decade away from the big screen Emma Thompson’s magical governess is back to take on a new batch of recalcitrant children in Nanny McPhee Returns. She's gotten better with age.
The second chapter of the Nanny McPhee saga which marks a definitive improvement over the first sends the unsightly taskmaster to the English countryside where Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) the mother of three rambunctious tots (Oscar Steer Asa Butterfield and Lil Woods) has been left alone to raise her unruly brood and manage the family farm while her husband is away at war. (Though it’s never specifically mentioned the film is presumed to take place during World War II.) Harried but capable Isabel’s tenuous grip on her unfortunate situation begins to loosen when a pair of privileged London cousins (Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson) and a shady indebted brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) arrive to wreak fresh havoc in her already chaotic existence. On the verge of losing control of both her farm and her family she opens the door to find Nanny McPhee’s wart-covered visage staring back at her and not a moment too soon.
Though for the most part a breezy and whimsical fable Nanny McPhee Returns is unafraid to scatter a few dramatic bombshells amid its mix of lighthearted fantasy and practical life lessons trusting correctly that its youthful audience can handle a few bleak bumps en route to its happy ending. The biggest revelation of the film aside from director Susanna White and screenwriter/star Thompson’s bawdy comedic sensibilities (one of the film’s less pleasant lessons: kids never tire of scatological humor) is the proficiency of its child actors so often the weak link in even the best family fare. It’s their winning performances along with that of the always excellent Gyllenhaal that help make Nanny McPhee Returns not just an entertaining experience but an endearing one as well.
The irresistibly named Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a wide-eyed--accentuate the positive--cheerleader of a school teacher with an attitude that says “I want to be your friend.” She is endlessly Happy Go Lucky and even several encounters with those who don’t share her optimistic outlook can’t seem to knock her down. The film doesn’t have a traditional plotline but rather is a series of recurring scenes from her life. After her bike is stolen she decides to take driving lessons from an increasingly frustrated instructor (Eddie Marsan). Their frequent episodes grow more intense each time as the lessons tend to bring out the pent-up anger of the man trying to teach Poppy how to make a left turn. She also takes Flamenco lessons from a loopy Spanish dance instructor (Karina Fernandez) gets romantically involved in an intense relationship with a social worker (Samuel Roukin) spends time with her best pal and roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) who provides a soothing counterpoint to Poppy’s non-stop cheerfulness and tries to deal with problems involving her sisters (Kate O'Flynn and Caroline Martin) and brother-in-law (Oliver Maltman).
Leigh is known for an improvisational style of filmmaking spending months working everything out with his actors in rehearsal and then letting them do the scenes with only an outline of what it will be. In this environment actors have to be top notch and indeed Leigh has elicited a few Oscar-nominated performances in the past including Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies and Imelda Staunton in his last film Vera Drake. Add Sally Hawkins to the top tier of actors in Leigh films. She is in nearly every scene and the film lives or dies on her inherent appeal. We are with this irrepressible life force from the very first moment she hits the screen with her rather garish but colorful outfits and unflappable demeanor. Hawkins is a breath of fresh air a real discovery. Also getting lots of screen time is Eddie Marsan as the driving instructor who goes ballistic. His slow simmering rage is fascinating to watch as the dynamic of the student/teacher relationship goes into unexpected--and uncomfortable--territory. Fernanez provides most of the film’s comic relief as the demanding flamenco instructor and her scenes with Hawkins are the film’s highlight. Leigh is a director known for exploring the lives of British working class. His unique films focus generally on those poor blokes and birds just trying to get by and live a life of dignity despite England’s class system. As one of his film titles suggests Mike Leigh characters have High Hopes. But Happy Go Lucky is perhaps his lightest and certainly most optimistic film yet. By focusing an entire feature on a central character who exudes happiness and goodwill toward her fellow man he turns a light also on the problems and hang-ups of people who bounce their woes off her in this oddly segmented film. Leigh’s improv filmmaking techniques work well here but seem less structured and disciplined than usual. The film is too long for its own good and many scenes wear out their welcome halfway in. Still it’s good to have a craftsman with the kind of singular voice Leigh has still able to make movies his way because in this instance at least that has produced the gift of Sally Hawkins.
Considered the most popular of Austen’s novels Pride and Prejudice examines the class struggles of England’s 19th century. It revolves around the spirited Bennet family: the headstrong and intelligent Elizabeth (Keira Knightley); her older and more serene sister Jane (Rosamund Pike); their three younger sisters (Jena Malone Talulah Riley Carey Mulligan); their doting father (Donald Sutherland); and their mother (Brenda Blethyn) who’s obsessed with finding the girls suitable husbands. When Lizzie finally meets her match in the aloof Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFayden) she immediately dismisses him as an arrogant ass. But ever so slowly it dawns on Lizzie she may be entirely wrong about Darcy. Is it too late to tell him? An Austen adaptation naturally lends itself to a gathering of fine British actors (or actors who can pretend to be British). Leading the pack is the very lovely Keira Knightley. A far cry from the shotgun-totin’ bounty hunter in Domino the actress certainly gives her most layered performance as Elizabeth. But she’s once again playing a spirited woman who doesn’t adhere to the rules. Guess nobody’s gonna ever put Keira in a corner. As her Mr. Darcy MacFayden plays one of literature’s more enduring romantic figures with style. He gives Colin Firth--who’s considered one of the better Darcys after playing him in a 1995 TV miniseries--a run for his money. The rest of the stellar cast is just as refreshing as ever including Pike (Doom) as the modest beauty Jane and Sutherland as the elder Bennet who is the reason Elizabeth is as independent as she is. This feature film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is entirely different from the last one--the 1940 glossy production starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Newcomer Joe Wright gives Pride and Prejudice a definitive indie feel by using the camera in very intimate ways as we watch the fun-loving Bennets interact. Of course filming in the flourishing English countryside doesn’t hurt either. Wright delivers amazing displays of breathtaking beauty from Elizabeth standing on a cliff in Brighton to watching Darcy stride across a field at sunrise to claim his love once and for all. Pride and Prejudice does move a little slowly and it isn’t as rich as the 1995 Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility but it’s been awhile since we’ve had Austen done in such a wonderfully romantic way. And who couldn’t use a little 19th-century romance?