She's the Nan

We take a minute with Emma Thompson to chat about her new film and why McPhee is a modern day role model

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Sun 22 Aug 2010, 10:48 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:07 PM

EMMA THOMPSON IS no stranger to success, but when her movie Nanny McPhee, which she wrote and starred-in, turned in $122 million in global ticket sales in 2005, it surprised many industry watchers.

The two-time Oscar winner (adapted screenplay for Sense and Sensibility and lead actress in Howard’s End) again puts on the scary-looking makeup for the tough-minded nanny who whips kids into shape for Nanny McPhee Returns.

Thompson, 51, spoke to us about her writing and the Nanny McPhee movies, which are loosely based on books about another stern nanny, Nurse Matlida.

Did you read the Nurse Matilda stories as a kid?

I did, and then I happened to be dusting the bookshelves in my library — well, it’s not a library, it’s a room with lots of books in it — and I found this little book. I’d just finished Sense and Sensibility, and I had a feeling there was something very cinematic about this character (Nurse Matilda) because her face changes from the beginning to the end — although she doesn’t change internally — to the kids?

We are bound, at the moment, by an insistence on very shallow beauty and having things that are supposed to make you look a particular way, which I find deeply worrying and which hasn’t contributed to the sum human happiness in any way, at all. To me, she’s a great rebellion against all that.

Nanny McPhee is not Mary Poppins. Poppins was spoonful of sugar. McPhee is all about tough love. Why is that better?

Extreme liberty is too difficult for us, especially when we are growing up. We need — not even rules — but boundaries and confines. Of course, it must be loose and you must be allowed to be brave and make mistakes, hurt yourself and all that. But there must be boundaries, otherwise we become miserable.

Why feel the need to write stories, as opposed to just being an actress? They are both creative, but very different.

I like writing. It’s hard and there are a lot of times when I don’t like it and I don’t want to do it. But the satisfaction I got from watching Sense and Sensibility come to life was so enormous that I thought I’d like to feel that again. I love writing my own stuff. I just enjoy doing that.”

Is it because you have something to say — in the case of McPhee about raising children — and you must say it?

I’m not the kind of person to use a story necessarily for that purpose. I tell stories to delight and entertain. That is my primary function. But because of the way I feel, those stories are going to necessarily contain a particular kind of emotional content. That is why I don’t shy away from fear of loss, from divorce, from death, from all the things that affect children one way or another, whether we like it or not. It’s very important that they have stories address that and not have issues resolved by magic powers or by adults or, in some cases, have issues that are left unresolved.

Along that line, war is a backdrop for Nanny McPhee. In Hollywood, most producers would stay away from war in a family film. Why go against movie convention?

The possibility of a person coming back from war is very real and the possibility of them not coming back is very real. It’s a constant tension, so what I could begin with, was knowing we had a family where somebody was absent and they might not come back. That adds to people not being able to deal with something else in their lives — in this case, two very unpleasant people arriving and invading territory that is already under siege, emotionally.

I was very keen, as well, on examining the thing of being a single mum, and while Mrs. Green is not single in the sense she’s married, she is alone, for all intents and purposes.

You chose Maggie Gyllenhaal to be that mum. She’s known for gritty, independent films, not family films. Why her?

I met her on Stranger than Fiction, and we got along very well. Lindsay (Doran, the producer) and I talked about it and said, wouldn’t she be great. She’s become a mum. She’s a really, really seriously good actress, so she can pretty much do anything. We thought, wouldn’t it be lovely to see her do something that is very different to the sort of very modern, kind of hard edge stuff she’s been doing. And she just knocked it out of the part. She took it on with such gusto, with two hands and made it her own.

Nanny fate

FIVE YEARS AFTER her movie debut — not so long a passage to have been forgotten and enough time to be fondly remembered — Nanny McPhee Returns.

Nanny McPhee, a thoroughly English character pretty much created and enacted by the multitalented Emma Thompson, can be summed up as Mary Poppins without the Sherman Brothers’ delightful songs. But this doesn’t quite catch what is unique here. Thompson’s nanny with magical powers that make children behave contains certain elements that would be quite at home in a horror film.

Her initial appearance in this film, for instance, is presaged by storm warnings and ominous signs, and her entrance is enough to send children scampering under beds. Moles and facial hairs dominate her countenance, and considerable body padding gives the actress substantial girth. Clearly no spoonful of sugar is going to help any of Nanny McPhee’s medicine go down.

Like Mary Poppins, this character, recruited and renamed from three Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand, dwells in a bygone England that looked sort of Victorian in the previous film but in this one takes place during a “war” that can only logically be World War I.

The movie’s farm-family dad (Ewan McGregor in a cameo) is away fighting in the war. This leaves his beleaguered wife, Isabel (Maggie Gyllenhaal with a serviceable English accent and a welcome touch of glamour), saddled with a debt-ridden farm and three quarrelling children, a burden greatly increased when two snobbish city cousins arrive for an extended visit. Meanwhile, her nefarious brother-in-law, Phil (Rhys Ifans, savagely overacting), is bugging her to sell the farm so he can satisfy his gambling debts.

Enter Nanny McPhee — “small c, big P,” she reminds everyone — whose origins are vague to say the least. She claims she is deployed by the British Army. Indeed, in a sequence in a nicely period London circa 1915, everyone from military guards to the statues in Trafalgar Square seems to know her. One wonders why her superhero skills aren’t deployed in the war effort rather than in calming domestic turmoil, but then only an adult would question such a thing.

It takes but a thump of her crooked cane on the floor to tame five squabbling children through magical “lessons.” At first, this amounts to using her magic against the children, but soon they are all so delighted by such things as a baby elephant who sleeps in their beds and squealing piglets capable of synchronised swimming that the youngsters begin to share and cooperate without the need for any magical nudges.

Thompson admits she looted all three Brand novels for her first screenplay, so in this one she must start from scratch with only a character and a situation of dire domestic turmoil. The major disappointment here is that the final act relies far too heavily on CGI magic rather than story, character or wit. But getting to the final act provides most of the fun.

The young actors are all adept in their roles, especially Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson as the visiting cousins. Their thorough distaste for the aggressively rural environment is palpable, and their gradual acclimation to these surroundings is always amusing. Vlahos and Asa Butterfield, as Isabel’s eldest boy, have the movie’s most effective scene, in which the duo confronts Ralph Fiennes, playing Vlahos’ stiff military dad, during the boys’ quick trip to London to learn of fate of Butterfield’s father.

Thompson develops some of the smaller roles quite well, especially Sinead Matthews and Kathy Brand as a pair of “hit women” out to collect on Phil’s tardy IOUs and Bill Bailey as an affable neighbouring farmer.

Other roles call for too much mugging. This would include Maggie Smith’s turn as a forgetful old shopkeeper and Sam Kelly as an aging air-raid warden. The film suffers slightly from a curiously sort of ageism, where the older you get the more “comic” you become.

In the title role, Thompson wisely lets her makeup artist do much of the initial work — the moles and hair do start to disappear as the children learn her lessons, leaving her more or less recognisable by movie’s end. Meanwhile, she uses her commanding voice to bring the movie’s energy to her character while standing aside to give the child protagonists plenty of room to romp.

Period films often get coy about their looks either through overemphasising historic details or restricting the colour palettes. Under Susanna White’s direction, cinematographer Mike Eley shoots 1915 as if it were 2010 with bright colours and straightforward framing. James Newton Howard’s music picks up its comic cues perhaps a bit too swiftly and loudly, but little of this detracts from the movie’s many pleasures.

Novel idea

Latin pop star Ricky Martin’s new memoir will reveal his early struggles with his music career through to his rise to fame and coming to terms with his sexuality and fatherhood.

The English and Spanish-language versions of the book, called Me and Yo respectively, will be published in hardcover in the United States on November 2 after it was recently acquired by Celebra, a division of Penguin, the publisher said.

Martin, 38, the singer of such hits as Private Emotion and Shake Your Bon-Bon said he was writing the memoir alongside announcing he was gay in March, ending years of speculation. He became a father to twin sons via a surrogate in 2008 and at the time no details were given about the birth or the mother.

“Writing this book allowed me to explore the different paths and experiences that have led me to be who I am today,” he said in a statement. “I’ve had to tie up loose ends that I’d never attempted to tie up before, to work deeply into memories that were already erased from my mind.

The singer began his career with boy band Menudo and broke out as a solo artist and teen idol in the 1990s in Spanish-speaking countries.

He released his first English-language album in 1999 the self-titled Ricky Martin, which saw two major hits, Livin’ la Vida Loca and She’s All I Ever Had.

Pratt fall

As the limelight fades on The Hills stars, Spencer Pratt tries to claw back some notoriety by shopping “Speidi” sex tape

TALK ABOUT A sticky celebrity web. The Hills TV stars Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag, once dubbed “Speidi” as a couple but now in the throes of a nasty divorce, found themselves at the centre of a new controversy on Friday when Pratt was reported to be shopping around a sex tape that he claims features himself and his estranged wife.

Celebrity website TMZ said Pratt had asked for a meeting with Los Angeles porn film company Vivid Entertainment about selling the alleged tape. Vivid co-chairman Steven Hirsch told TMZ he had spoken with Pratt “about a sex tape with Heidi Montag...We are in early negotiations to possibly come to terms for a deal.”

Pratt later told that he has “been making films since I was in the 7th grade. I’m looking forward to people seeing my directorial debut”.

A spokesman for Montag could not confirm the existence of a tape and said the actress was filming on location and could not be reached. A Vivid spokeswoman was not immediately available.

Montag, 23, is in the process of divorcing Pratt, 27, after 15 months of marriage. Pratt said earlier this week that he planned on writing a tell-all book about their relationship, which began when they were both featured on the MTV series. Montag told TMZ she might sue to block it.

Fantasia moves forward despite personal challenges

Fantasia has endured a roller-coaster couple of weeks as the object of media attention.

First she was named in a divorce case that includes sex-tape allegations, and then she was hospitalised for a “medical overdose.” But none of that is stopping the former American Idol champ from honouring a previously scheduled promotional tour in support of her third album, Back to Me.

“People think we beefed up all these TV commitments,” says Carolyn Williams, senior vice president of marketing for RCA Music Group. Williams is referring to a label press release issued earlier detailing release-week appearances on Good Morning America and Lopez Tonight, plus upcoming guest stints on 106 & Park, Live! With Regis and Kelly and The Wendy Williams Show.

“These were already on the calendar,” Williams says. “There was talk of moving the album release date back, but this was Fantasia’s decision. She wanted to move forward, and we support her.”

Fantasia — who will also appear at radio personality Steve Harvey’s Hoodie Awards in Las Vegas and fellow syndicated personality Tom Joyner’s Family Reunion— will hit the promo circuit armed with a third chart-topping single. In the wake of the singer’s personal travails, Bittersweet jumped from No. 4 to No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult R&B list, joining previous chart-toppers Free Yourself and Truth Is.

Responding to questions about the album via e-mail, Fantasia said the love- and independence-fuelled Back to Me has “allowed her to give back exactly what and who everyone fell in love with” during her Idol turn.

“It’s just me getting ‘back to me’ by singing songs that are age-appropriate yet showing growth,” the singer said, citing Bittersweet, album track Collard Greens and Cornbread (“reflecting my Southern roots”) and the motivational bonus track I’m Here from the musical The Colour Purple as examples.

RCA’s Williams says a second single will be announced in the next weeks. Meanwhile, the Internet is buzzing about Lucky, a newly leaked track that’s not on the final album. Its lyrics revolve around the subject of a love triangle.

Premiering on Facebook and Amazon, Back to Me will garner additional attention when VH1’s Fantasia for Real begins its second season. The reality show attracted 2.3 million viewers when it debuted last January, averaging 1.2 million per episode, according to Nielsen. Even Angels, which appears on the new album, was one of several songs showcased during the first season. This season’s focus will include the marketing and promotion of the new album.

More news from