Keeping Mum

(2006) ** 1/2 R
103 min. ThinkFilm. Director: Niall Johnson. Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Patrick Swayze, Emilia Fox.

A cheeky comedy of liberation from repression, Keeping Mum is veddy, veddy British. Writer-director Niall Johnson and co-writer Richard Russo (yes, that Richard Russo, of Empire Falls fame) succeed in recreating the simple pleasures of the old Ealing comedies, which let talented character actors shine. Ealing's situation comedies ranged from gentle satires of politics and class struggle to dark-tinged laffers set in a criminal underground just beneath the line of sight. Taking its spade to the fabled sedateness of country life, Keeping Mum unearths a roiling desire for criminally unfulfilled self-satisfaction.

Rowan Atkinson plays country vicar Walter Goodfellow, pastor of the parish of Little Wallop. Stodgy and oblivious, he's distracted by petty parish problems and his own pending moment of glory delivering a keynote conference speech on "God's Mysterious Ways." As he putters and nods obligingly, his family runs off the rails: sex-starved wife Gloria (Kristin Scott Thomas) considers taking the plunge with her American golf instructor (Patrick Swayze), teen daughter Holly plows aimlessly through an alarming succession of young suitors, and son Petey contends haplessly with bullies who've smelled his weakness.

Enter Grace Hawkins (Dame Maggie Smith), the very picture of the wise and affectionate housekeeper. She's just what a drifting brood needs to live up to its potential as the "perfect family" promised in Country Life magazine. Unfortunately, she's also an unrepentant murderer recently released after serving forty-three years. Little Wallop—population 57—begins a conspicuous drop in residence as Grace dispatches anyone inconvenient to the happiness of her new household.

The unlikely and sudden awakening of the family to the possibility of a better life follows, at first, a predictable and well-trodden course. Put onto the world wide web by Grace, the reverend converts from pulpit bore to captivating jokester; he also rediscovers marital sexuality when Grace genteely argues for a sexual reading of the Song of Solomon. Petey enjoys the benefits of Grace's vengeful instincts, and Holly takes pause to examine her wayward ways. Dissuaded from adultery and renewed in her marriage, Gloria can't believe her good fortune until she stumbles onto the truth about the live-in help.

Thankfully, Russo and Johnson save a couple of third-act twists for the otherwise straight-ahead plot, as well as the film's zippiest exchanges. When Gloria objects, "You can't go around killing people just because you don't approve of them!" Grace mulls the criticism: "That's what my doctors used to say." It's a distinct pleasure to see Thomas at work, and her radiant turn doesn't disappoint. Atkinson's not asked to stretch, but he teases every comic oppportunity (including some physical shtick) out of his role, and Smith is typically brilliant as she seems to both parody and perfect the archetype of the unexpectedly naughty old biddy. Slight but amusing, Keeping Mum is just as naughty, mainstreaming immoral means to the end of family harmony.

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