"Behave or Beware." That's the tag line for Nanny McPhee, a movie about seven naughty children and the magical but ugly governess who sets them straight, and it perfectly captures the dark humor and ominous authority of Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda books on which the film was based. But somewhere along the way, the film loses sight of this theme, and it becomes a movie about something else entirely, with disappointing results.
Brand introduced this magical governess in a short story for the 1962 anthology Naughty Children, which she then expanded into a book two years later; it was followed by two sequels. These stories follow a basic template: There is a family with many, many children—one of the running gags is that the author keeps introducing the names of boys and girls we have not yet met—and because there are so many of these children, they don't have adequate adult supervision; and thus, when all other nurses and nannies have quit, it is up to the magical Nurse Matilda to come and make the children behave.
Usually, Nurse Matilda disciplines the children by making them continue in their bad behavior long after they have ceased to will it to continue. If, say, they have been gobbling their food too fast, she taps the floor with her big black stick and, next thing you know, the children can't stop eating; indeed, they eat until it hurts. Eventually, the children learn their lesson, and every time they do, Nurse Matilda—who looked rather ugly when she first arrived at their house—looks slightly less ugly than she did before. Good behavior does not only make the children better people, it allows them to see others in a better light, too.
Emma Thompson grew up on these stories and clearly loves ...1