The otherworldly Nanny McPhee provides a stark contrast to the very human Brown household, overseen by the harried, lonely, and sometimes desperate Mr. Brown. This central character—who provides the connective tissue between the comedic and romantic aspects of the film—was a crucial part to cast. “Let’s face it: we needed an impossible combination,” says Doran. “We needed somebody who was believable as the father of seven children, and we also needed a dreamboat, since the love story is a very important part of the film.” Kirk Jones had no doubts about who he wanted to play Mr. Brown. “Colin Firth had always been top of my list”, he says.
Equally acclaimed for his work in both drama (“The Girl With the Pearl Earring”) and romantic comedy (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”), Firth was game to exercise both disciplines in “Nanny McPhee.” “One of the most interesting manoeuvres a story can make is to take you from tears to laughter and back again,” says Firth. “It’s incredibly powerful and very attractive for an actor to be part of that.”
Thompson notes, “Colin is probably one of the few actors in our country who combines the capacity for farce and profoundly funny stuff with a capacity for romantic drama. Jones adds, “He was in touch with the broad comedy as well as the sensitivity of the character. A lot of actors can convey both of these emotions but few can mix them so effectively.”
While reading the script, Firth felt like a child being told a story. “‘Nanny McPhee’ has all the elements that you want from a story, that you longed for in a story when you were a child,” says Colin Firth. “You wanted to be a little bit scared, well, a lot scared; you wanted perhaps to have a bit of romance. It’s a good solid story. It doesn’t reverse time; it doesn’t go into some impressionistic zone. It’s very funny; it’s rather menacing; it has romance and a happy ending. It really has all those fundamental, very old-fashioned story elements in abundance, working at a very high pitch. It’s the kind of thing that you hope children are going to sit there watching, wide-eyed, wanting more of, and I certainly felt that myself.”
Mr. Brown, the widowed father of the seven Brown children, is clearly in over his head. He has no faith in himself, or his children, or, at first, the strange figure who appears at his door. He is also muddled romantically, caught between the longing for the counsel and comfort of his late wife and the need to release his heart for the sake of himself and for his children. “Mr. Brown is the embattled father of seven extremely naughty children and he loves them all to distraction,” Firth explains. “I think he’s a very sentimental man who wouldn’t deny them anything really and because he’s recently widowed it’s now incumbent upon him to try to keep order and really to keep his life on the rails.”
“We live in a time in the story where very terrible things happen to people who fall into debt,” Firth continues. “The threat that hangs over them is basically debtor’s prison for them, the poorhouse for the kids and the break-up of the family. This is all of course black comedy but his real dilemma is the fact that he’s got to hide it from them, he’s got to hide his anxiety from them, what he wants to present to them is a smiling face.”
“Mr. Brown is very peace-loving; whereas, his children are not,” says 9-year-old Raphael Coleman, who plays the professorial Eric, the second-oldest of the Brown boys. “The kids are mischievous, mean—just evil, really. And he’s the opposite.”
Playing the father of these naughty children required from Firth a great deal of physical comedy, which he points out is both exhausting and panic-making. “It’s a paradox that the very lightest and silliest stuff is often the most agonizing process in reality,” he says. But Firth’s agonies paid off. “He made us all laugh on- and off-set, and delivered a performance which I think is warmer and more comically endearing than anything he has done before, says the director. “Colin was very sensitive to the level of comedy. He pushed the tone when he knew it was needed but insisted on holding back when he felt there was a danger of overkill.”
Throughout the production, Firth relied on Jones to provide the Nanny McPhee-like centre of calm amidst the madness of the action. “It’s a great strength,” says Firth. “Kirk is uncompromising in getting the shots he wants, yet at the same time very generous in letting other people’s imaginations flourish. If you want to try something different, he will always allow you to try it, but he’s very determined when he decides the way in which we shoot.”
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