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Looking At The Redemptive In … Nanny MacPhee

This might be breaking the rules a bit … Nanny MacPhee is a film and not literature, per se. But it provides a good example of what I mean when I discuss “redemptive.” One might describe Nanny MacPhee as Mary […]
| Nov 16, 2006 | No comments |

This might be breaking the rules a bit … Nanny MacPhee is a film and not literature, per se. But it provides a good example of what I mean when I discuss “redemptive.”

One might describe Nanny MacPhee as Mary Poppins gone bad. Actually, I found it much better—that is, more realistic and morally deeper—than Mary Poppins. Whereas in the latter, there are only two children (as a concession to modern sensibilities), who are merely naughty due to mother and father’s benign neglect, Nanny MacPhee features a family of eight—a widowed father driven to distraction trying to fend off poverty in Victorian/Edwardian England, and his seven positively wicked children. The opening scene features the latest nanny—employed less than a day—running in hysterics to the father’s office with the news that “they have eaten the baby!”

The children, of course, have made it a game to see how quickly they can traumatize their nannies into leaving, and this is the seventeenth they have disposed of. When the father returns to the agency to secure yet another, a disembodied voice tells him that he needs “Nanny MacPhee.”

And soon she arrives, hideously ugly and witchlike, complete with a staff, warts, and hooked nose; the father is nervous but desperate, and so solicits her services. She explains that there are five lessons to be learned, then goes to find the children, who are, of course, in the middle of their usual wickedness. Nanny tells them to stop. They refuse. She then thumps her staff on the floor, once—ominously—and the children find themselves horrifyingly unable to stop. Nanny waits until they have come to the point of being wholly disgusted with their own wickedness—then at the last possible second, when the baby’s life truly is in danger—she thumps the floor again. Not only are the children able to stop now, but the horrible mess they have made is gone.

Later, the children want to foil their father’s attempts to find another wife, not knowing that he does so out of necessity: his aunt has threatened to cut off her monetary support of the family and parcel out the children if the father does not remarry. The eldest child goes to Nanny for help, only to find that it comes with the caution: he must live with whatever consequences come of his (and ultimately, all the children’s) actions. This is the crux of the story—they learn that not only is family important, but more important it is to bear responsibility for one’s words and deeds. And in this—the grappling with the issue of personal accountability, and of putting another’s needs before one’s own desires—the family is transformed.

The film has a couple of stupid moments—a dancing donkey, and the father’s attempts to fend of his children’s pranks on the woman he has painfully set himself to propose to, which manage to look (to her) like clumsy lechery. But overall—I loved the dark fairy-tale atmosphere, the subplots of the true nature of beauty and demolishing the traditional stereotype of the hated stepmother.

Now, here’s something interesting. My neighbor, a Christian who babysits and helps around the house and generally is unofficial part-time nanny herself, refuses to watch this film. After a bit of discussion, it came out that she more or less feels that the character of Nanny MacPhee is a witch. That gave me pause—I can see her point—but I explained that I rather felt she was an angel, instead. She did certain things that were too out of the realm of “ordinary” occultic ability, and the moral themes were far beyond the warm-fuzzy “family, friends, and self-esteem” that Stephen mentioned yesterday.

So, for those of you who have seen the film, what say you? Witch or angel, and are there any other redemptive aspects that I missed mentioning?

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