If getting ugly is the way to get an Oscar, Emma Thompson might as well start drafting her acceptance speech now. As the title character in the macabre and delightful Nanny McPhee, she presents herself as a Gothic collection of facial calamities: skin that looks like boiled cabbage, a nose resembling a three-day-old suet pudding, and, most repulsive of all, a single snaggletooth flapping over her bottom lip. This vision of anti-vanity sweeps like a tattered broom through the cluttered Victorian household of the Brown clan, nominally headed by Cedric (Colin Firth), a widowed funeral-parlor owner who stands to lose his main income unless he marries again. That’s not an imminent prospect, given that his sinister and resourceful kids have just driven off their 17th caretaker in succession. But with her magical walking stick and black bombazine, Nanny proves just the sort to pack children off to bed at the proper hour—and to rearrange the lives of any adult bystanders. “When you need me but do not want me, then I will stay,” she tells her initially recalcitrant charges. “When you want me but do not need me, then I have to go.” Yes, working herself out of a job she is, just like her sister in servitude, Mary Poppins. And if Nanny bears more than a passing resemblance to P.L. Travers’ supernatural governess—not to mention Maria von Trapp and most of the cast of Nanny 911—she still scratches out her own leaf in the annals of child-rearing fantasy. Working from Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda books, star/screenwriter Thompson and director Kirk Jones leaven the film’s “lessons” with sprinklings of astringency and allow the grim-pussed McPhee to win us over in her own good time. Nothing in Nanny McPhee is forced. No one breaks into song. And Thompson resists every temptation to wink at the audience. As for the rest of the actors, they are, with the exception of a mugging Angela Lansbury, as right as rain—especially Firth, striking his usual balance between manly and diffident, and Celia Imrie, a vision in harpy pink as a money-grubbing professional widow with a cottage airlifted straight from Hansel and Gretel’s forest. Credit art director Lynne Huitson for that last item, but credit Thompson and Jones for not getting caught up in the fairy-tale magic elsewhere. Even their big finish—a snow-spangled August wedding—is undercut with a cake fight. —Louis Bayard

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