Review by: Larry Thomas
American filmmakers seem to only think of comedy in terms of bodily functions,
stupid people, and cruelty. Witness films like the Jackass series, or
performers like Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider. Most of the cinematic atrocities
perpetrated by such filmmakers are unfunny and unbearable.
So it's nice to know that the Brits still have the knack for funny dialogue,
and charming characters, which is the case with Keeping Mum, a film
reminiscent of such classic gems as The Ladykillers. This small, quiet
black comedy is set in a village of 57 residents. The local vicar is shy and
rather ineffectual. He's so wrapped up in his flock that he shamefully
neglects his wife. Mom is bored and angry, and seems to be annoyed by just about
everything. She's on the verge of having an affair with the crass American
golf instructor. The family's teenage daughter is notably promiscuous,
while the middle-school-aged boy is wimpy and always picked on by his peers.
Into this rural, dysfunctional setting comes the new housekeeper, who seems
to almost instantly have a "Mary Poppins" effect on everyone, dispensing
charm, ideas and wise advice, left and right. But our Grace is no Mary Poppins.
She has a secret... actually, two secrets, which our beleaguered family has
yet to discover.
That the plot twists are telegraphed from the first frame as if they came straight
from Western Union is irrelevant. What makes Keeping Mum so much fun
is the outstanding cast. Rowan Atkinson is the clueless vicar, aptly named Mr.
Goodfellow, who always seems half-a-day behind everyone else. Instead of his
usual Mr. Bean schtick, Atkinson gets to grasp a real character and give a real
performance. Kristin Scott-Thomas, from Four Weddings and a Funeral,
plays Gloria Goodfellow, and she has never been more glowing on screen. Her
pain and depression is obvious, while at the same time we are all rooting for
her. The womanizing golfer is Patrick Swayze, who seems to have great fun satirizing
all the macho roles he's previously had. He really needs to do more comedy.
And, of course, the star of the show has to be Maggie Smith, one of the world's
acting treasures, as Grace. While others might have taken the opportunity to
play this role way over the top, and for slapstick, our Maggie retains her calm
and dignified demeanor, no matter what she's perpetrating.
The supporting roles are fine, especially 85-year-old Liz Smith as a dotty
old busybody who is forever pestering the vicar about the flower arranging committee.
She's primarily a staple of British television, and didn't start
acting until she was 50. And there's a small role by James Booth, the
rugged second-lead in the epic adventure film Zulu, as a cranky old
coot with an irritating dog. This is Booth's final film appearance, as
he died following production.
Another plus is the lilting, melodic score by Dickon Hinchcliffe, which harkens
back to John Barry's work from the mid-60s. Director Niall Johnson, who
co-wrote the script with author Richard Russo, keeps things at a nice pace,
and gives the countryside a nice look.
Although Keeping Mum is not full of bellylaughs, it is full of chuckles,
smiles, sly winks, puns, double entendrés and warmth. And the Brits are
very good at that.