"Keeping Mum" is a neatly crafted black comedy with more than a nod in tone toward the Ealing classic "The Ladykillers." Strongly cast yarn about a murderous old housekeeper who solves the problems of a village vicar and his dysfunctional family is, ironically, too well acted and subtly directed for mass B.O. appeal.

Rather dark, decidedly English and exceedingly well played, “Keeping Mum” is a neatly crafted black comedy with more than a nod in tone toward the Ealing classic “The Ladykillers.” Strongly cast, with Kristin Scott Thomas and Maggie Smith both at the top of their game, yarn about a murderous old housekeeper who solves the problems of a village vicar and his dysfunctional family is, ironically, too well acted and subtly directed for mass B.O. appeal. When pics were allowed to build by word-of-mouth, this slyly humorous item, released wide in Blighty Dec. 2, could have become a cult hit.

Forty-three years ago, a beautiful young blonde, Rosie Jones (Emilia Fox), boards a train with a large leather-bound trunk, from which a large pool of blood slowly issues. Arrested, Rosie’s sentenced to life in a prison for the criminally insane, for murdering and chopping up two people.

Cut to today and the genteel village of Little Wallop (pop. 57), where the Goodfellow family resides. Dad Walter (Rowan Atkinson) is the local vicar, somewhat forgetful and endlessly harried by an aged nosy neighbor, suitably named Mrs. Parker (TV vet Liz Smith). Mom Gloria (Scott Thomas) is bored out of her brain and hasn’t had sex in ages, unlike her 17-year-old nympho daughter Holly (Tamsin Egerton). Younger son Peter (Toby Parkes) is bullied at school.

Gloria is flirting mildly with her Yank golf coach, the studly Lance (Patrick Swayze). However, Lance also has eyes for Holly.

Enter the aged Grace Hawkins (Maggie Smith), the family’s new housekeeper, who has a leather-bound trunk just like Rosie’s. Think Mary Poppins crossed with Nanny McPhee without the warts.

Almost immediately, the Goodfellows’ life changes for the better. A barking dog that’s been keeping Gloria awake suddenly stops barking. Peter’s bullies take a tumble from their bikes. And even Holly takes an interest in baking cakes. That leaves just Gloria and Walter’s marriage to fix.

As the slightly dotty vicar and tart-tongued housekeeper, Atkinson and Smith are cast in roles where it would be easy for them simply to trot out their usual shtick. Both, however, rein back, giving the third act, which goes for warm character development rather than a comedic Big Finish, a satisfying — if, in popular terms, low-key — glow.

Neither Grace nor Walter swamp the picture’s true lead, loving but frustrated housewife Gloria. In a very different role from usual, Scott Thomas is aces here, handling her sexy (but unconsummated) liaisons with Swayze’s coach with a mixture of well-bred common sense and oh-my-god longing.

Swayze is more of a Yank cliche, but OK in the circumstances. Egerton nicely underplays the leggy, confrontational daughter.

In his third feature, Niall Johnson, who also scripted this year’s “White Noise,” directs smoothly in widescreen. Southern English setting is actually a convincing meld of locations in the Isle of Man, Cornwall, North Yorkshire and Kingston-upon-Thames, with studio work at Pinewood.

With only one script surprise to power the third act, pic would benefit by slight tightening in the last half-hour. Other credits are fine, with Vicki Russell’s slightly tweaked costumes and d.p. Gavin Finney’s burnished colors creating a mildly exaggerated rural look. Small slip in a dated prop would seem to place the opening 41 years ago, rather than 43.

Film is dedicated to the late James Booth, who plays the crusty old dog-owner. Best known for ’60s roles in movies like “Zulu,” thesp died in August, at age 77.

Keeping Mum

U.K.

Production

An Entertainment Film Distributors release of a Summit Entertainment, Isle of Man Film, Azure Films presentation of a Tusk production. (International sales: Summit, Los Angeles.) Produced by Julia Palau, Matthew Payne. Executive producers, Steve Wilkinson, Anne Sheehan, Steve Christian, Marc Samuelson, Bertil Ohlsson, David Garrett. Co-producer, Nigel Wooll. Directed by Niall Johnson. Screenplay, Richard Russo, Johnson; story, Russo.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Gavin Finney; editor, Robin Sales; music, Dickon Hinchliffe; production designer, Crispian Sallis; art director, Simon Lamont; costume designer, Vicki Russell; sound (Dolby Digital), Martin Trevis, Brendan Nicholson, Richard Street; associate producer, Peter Fudakowksi; assistant director, Guy Heeley; casting, Jeremy Zimmermann, Andrea Clark. Reviewed at Vue West End 7, London, Dec. 2, 2005. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Walter Goodfellow - Rowan Atkinson Gloria Goodfellow - Kristin Scott Thomas Grace Hawkins - Maggie Smith Lance - Patrick Swayze Holly Goodfellow - Tamsin Egerton Peter Goodfellow - Toby Parkes Mrs. Parker - Liz Smith Rosie Jones - Emilia Fox Mr. Brown - James Booth
With: Patrick Monckton, Rowley Irlam, Vivienne Moore, Andrew Thomas Jones, Jack Ryan, Nazim Kourgli, Jack Zimmermann.
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