JUST recently, Emma Thompson solved a puzzle that had been troubling her for some time: just what are the cinematic roots of the character that she loves to play so much, the indomitable Nanny McPhee?
Thompson wrote the script and returns as the formidable and mysterious governess, who is blessed with magical powers, in the second film of the series, Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang, which follows the critically acclaimed first film, simply titled Nanny McPhee, released in 2005.
As always, the nanny appears just when she's needed the most – this time to help a young mother, Mrs Green (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), struggling to keep afloat, manage a farm that her brother wants to sell to pay off gambling debts, and look after her three boisterous children – and their two rather spoilt cousins – while her husband is away at war and feared missing in action.
Nanny McPhee is inspired by the Nurse Matilda books by the late Christianna Brand. But the story is entirely from the ever-fertile imagination of Thompson herself – a double Oscar winner both as an actress (Howards End) and as a writer (for Sense and Sensibility).
“For me, my goal with these movies is to tell stories that are for everyone and that can be shared by people of very different ages and that each group can enjoy it as much as the other but on a different level,” she said.
She has often wondered, though, about the heritage of the character and why she appeals to her so much. And Thompson realised that Nanny McPhee's lineage isn't quite what we'd perhaps expect.
Thompson's heroes weren't so much Mary Poppins, but more the enigmatic gunslinger played by Clint Eastwood in those classic westerns.
“Nanny McPhee is a western,” she said.
“It is, in fact, exactly the same form: she comes in and does the job and then rides off into the sunset.”. ”
Growing up in London, the daughter of actress Phyllida Law and the late actor and TV presenter Eric Thompson, Emma would curl up on the sofa with her parents and tune in to watch film and TV westerns.
“The Virginian – I loved that, it was absolutely fantastic,” she said.
“I just loved those forms and they are all about conflict and the resolution of conflict by people using strange and unorthodox methods.
“And that's who she is: Nanny McPhee is The Virginian for kids.”
It takes 90 minutes of make-up to transform Thompson into Nanny McPhee, complete with bulbous nose and warts and facial hair. The effect is dramatic – both on screen and off – and a little intimidating.
“She's a very particular person to play,” Thompson said.
“And I'll tell you what's interesting: I get a lot of the clues from other people's reactions. I mean, the crew, for instance – that's very funny, because if Nanny McPhee is on set in the full gear, they are very quiet and a little bit intimidated.
“Even the sparks (electricians) say, ‘Good morning, Nanny McPhee'. If I'm in the Nanny McPhee make-up, they call me ‘Nanny McPhee', whereas if I'm on set just as the writer, it's, ‘Hi, Em'.
“It's a completely different relationship that I have with them. It's very interesting.”
The full Nanny McPhee regalia – a heavy black dress over lots of padding to make her look far more plump than her slim self – combined with layers of make-up can be a little uncomfortable.
“There are times when it's not fun at all when it's raining and you're muddy and you're miserable and you can't believe the weather is like it is, and it's supposed to be the British summer,” Thompson said.
The children in Nanny McPhee were crucial to the film's success and Thompson, a mother herself, did her best to make sure that the young actors had a great time.
“They are marvellous,” she said.
“And as with the first one, we auditioned hundreds of children and worked with them so much.
“And we have a fantastic casting director for children – Pippa Hall.
“You know, it's quite demanding for them because they have to come back time and again and work again and again so they have to be OK with that.
“And OK with the fact that even though they may come back again and again, they may not get the part. So they have to be pretty tough, but it's wonderful to see them when they have got the part because they are so happy and so excited and they did have a wonderful time.” Thompson first started acting at Cambridge University where she studied English. After college, she starred in the highly acclaimed TV series Fortunes of War and made her film debut opposite Jeff Goldblum in The Tall Guy.
Her film work has included an Oscar-winning performance opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins in the period drama Howards End and starring with Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee, which earned her the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.
Motherhood, she says, has seen her concentrate more on screenwriting in recent years and turn down several acting roles because she didn't want to be away from her daughter, Gaia, now 10. Thompson lives in London and is married to actor Greg Wise.
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