Rowan Atkinson gets top-billing in this carefully paced black comedy, but the film really belongs to two of England’s finest women actors of the moment: Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas. It is their performances, rather than the mannered English humour, that make this film worth seeing.
Scott Thomas is Gloria, the frustrated wife of a vicar – the Reverend Walter Goodfellow – noticeably underplayed by Atkinson. Gloria is in search of a good night’s sleep or a good night’s hanky-panky. Anything would do in the genteel backwater village of Little Wallop, population 57. Gloria is struggling with her introverted young son, who has problems making friends with the other boys, and her promiscuous teenage daughter who definitely doesn’t. With no support from the hapless and inattentive Walter, Gloria is about to take matters into her own hands with her horribly lascivious American golf coach (nicely overdone by Patrick Swayze) when the new housekeeper Grace (Maggie Smith) arrives. She brings with her a suspiciously large trunk and a wicked glint in the personality profile. Let the dark games begin.
Keeping Mum doesn’t completely break the prolonged drought of quality comedy we seem to be in the midst of, but it will bring a contented shower of smiles for those who appreciate a high quality cast at work. It has been likened to classic Ealing comedies such as The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts & Coronets, but Director Niall Johnson, who also co-wrote the screenplay, steers the film well away from farce. With the exception of Swayze, who is given some license to ham, the cast play their parts straight. This is the territory where Scott Thomas excels, and her portrayal of the fed-up wife and mother, reduced to muttering and cursing under a stiff-upper lip, is unbeatable. The naturalistic tone does make some of the darker misfortunes that fall on those around the dysfunctional Goodfellow family hard to laugh at, but with Smith & Scott Thomas in fine form, this can easily be forgiven. Not so with the choice of ending, where Johnson is found guilty of spoiling the otherwise neatly constrained story with a cheap and ultimately unnecessary tying up of loose ends.
Don’t expect Rowan Atkinson in full Bean or Blackadder flight: this is much more delicate Country Life comeuppance at the hands of a deliciously dark fairy godmother.