Robin Williams can squeeze tears from your eyes. He is Danny Kaye in the body of a racoon. He embraces sentimentality and, like Cinderella's pumpkin, it changes in his arms. He makes you believe, because he believes, and there is not an ounce of deceit, not a flicker of cynicism in him.

The story of Mrs Doubtfire has a basis in reality and, what is more, painful reality. American comedies tend to avoid tough stuff. Chris Columbus's directorial watershed, Home Alone, never touched on the problems of what tabloids dub "home alone kids". It was light, fluffy, cute and cartoonish.

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Daniel and Miranda Hillard have been married 14 years. He is an actor, specialising in voices. She's an interior decorator. They have three children. Daniel's often between jobs and Miranda has become a workaholic. Daniel likes playing mess-up-the-house games and giving imaginative birthday parties. Miranda hates him for it. "You have all the fun and I have what's left over." She calls a halt. "You can't." he pleads. "We're family."

The film doesn't avoid the anguish of marital breakdown ("Can't you just tell Mom you're sorry?"). In fact, this is the source of the comedy. When Daniel is forbidden by the courts to see his children more than once a week, he is so upset ("I haven't been away from them for one day since they were born"), he metamorphoses into a 65-year-old Scottish nanny - his brother (Harvey Fierstein) is a make-up artist - and answers Miranda's ad for a part-time housekeeper.

Williams is wonderful in this Granma Poppins role, except he's sugar-free, funnier and doesn't let you forget that he's Daniel inside, screaming to be a father again. The comic business, often quick-change routines to avoid discovery, is faultless and the running gag about Miranda's new beau, the infinitely charming, unctuously smooth Stu (Pierce Brosnan), never tires.

What makes it work so well is the contrast between Sally Field's self-conscious sincerity as an actress and Williams's ability to convey emotion without apology. The all-girl writing team (Randi Mayem Singer, Leslie Dixon) remains true to novelist Anne Fine's concept that divorce is not only destructive to the young. This mixture of pain and farce gels, giving the film a relevance that goes beyond simple enjoyment.

Although handled with the confidence of a people pleaser, Mrs Doubtfire is no transplant. Her heart beats with genuine affection.

Reviewed on: 26 Jul 2001
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An estranged father dresses up as housekeeper in order to see his kids.
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Director: Chris Columbus

Writer: Randi Mayem Singer, Leslie Dixon, based on Alias Madam Doubtfire by Anne Fine

Starring: Robin Williams, Sally Field, Pierce Brosnan, Harvey Fierstein, Polly Holiday, Lisa Jakub, Matthew Lawrence, Mara Wilson, Robert Prosky

Year: 1993

Runtime: 125 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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