Keeping Mum

December, 2005, Comedy

Directed by:Niall Johnson

Starring:Rowan Atkinson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tamsin Egerton, Patrick Swayze, Maggie Smith, and Emilia Fox

The British have developed whimsy into an art form; equal parts modesty and self-deprecation, this wonderfully enjoyable style offers a silent rebuke to the often frantic, self-important humor of their former colonists who all too often mistake vulgarity for the comedic.  Not surprisingly, English cinema reflects this cultural trait as the films of Alec Guiness, (Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob) Margaret Rutherford, (I'm Allright Jack, Murder at the Gallop) and many others attest. Now it's Maggie Smith's turn, as she so deftly demonstrates in this quietly dotty examination of a female serial killer who only dispatches those who truly need it. Murder has never been so discretely directed at so many worthy subjects.

Dame Maggie plays Grace Hawkins, an escapee from an institution for the criminally insane, where she's been incarcerated for decadues after doing in her cheating husband and his lover. She applies for a job as housekeeper at the parsonage of the sepulchral Anglican Church in the village of Little Wallop, (population 57) which is occupied by the family of Reverend Walter Goodfellow. (He's played by the rubber-faced comedian Rowan Atkinson, Great Britain's answer to Jerry Lewis.) Walter bumbles everything he comes in contact with, especially his sharp-tongued wife Gloria, (Kristen Scott-Thomas). Most importantly, the Goodfellows' connubial interactions range so far below infrequent that she's driven into the arms, (but not yet the bed) of Lance, (Patrick Swayze) a loathsome Yank who works as a golf instructor at the local links. A nubile teenage daughter ever ready to drop her knickers for a new boyfriend, a shy son being bullied at school, ageing busybody neighbors and a dog that barks incessantly at night round out the cast. Grace attends to all of them in her fashion, dispatching the hopelessly incorrigible and counseling the rest to engage in more or less sexual activity as their individual circumstances dictate. She even manages to lay waste to the village bullies by sabotaging their bikes. And she cooks wonderfully too….

As the body count rises, Ms. Hawkins' more intimate connection to the Goodfellows is revealed, causing her to slip out of town ahead of the authorities, but not before passing on her predilection for justifiable homicide. 

All this nonsense is delivered in a brisk, unassuming 103 minutes by director Niall Johnson and a cast that's perfectly suited to the task. If there is a single complaint to be lodged against this wide-eyed defense of homicide, it's this; Atkinson relies far too much on his patented slapstick persona, much seen on British television in the Blackadder series and as Bean in the film of that name. His befuddled parson is so inept and uncomprehending at every turn it detracts from the beautifully underplayed style his fellow actors bring to the rest of the film. Swayze, (in great physical shape but glaringly showing his 54 years) provides the perfect counterpart to Scott-Thomas's shrewish sex-starved matron, unwilling to allow physical intimacy to slip out of her life even if it means kissing a very nasty toad. But as always, it's Maggie Smith who steals every scene she's in.…nearly 40 years after her Oscar-winning performance, Miss Jean Brodie remains in her prime.

The verdict? Wry, if frivolous fun.    

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