Monday, October 23, 2006


Mum's the Word

By Josh R
Of all cinematic prototypes, few may inspire as much nostalgia and affection as the classic British domestic. Victorian fictions portray them as colorful cockneys with round faces, comical features and preternaturally cheery natures — as endearing as household pets, and with the same kind of puppyish devotion to their masters. Of course, these pets have a practical utility, and their presence in the home is the ultimate stamp of a life of luxury. Who hasn’t fantasized about being waited upon hand and foot by a hyper-efficient collection of butlers, maids and cooks who execute their duties in crisp, self-effacing fashion and keep the household running like clockwork?

Envy then the Rev. Walter Goodfellow and his wife Gloria, as played by Rowan Atkinson and Kristin Scott Thomas, in the new film Keeping Mum, which is currently playing in select cities. A timid village vicar and his sexually frustrated wife, they inhabit a postcard-pretty cottage in the English countryside, juggling the duties of parenthood, the tedious obligations of parish life, and their own barely acknowledged frustrations with the dullness of it all. The family situation is far from perfect — the vicar is haplessly put-upon by his parishioners and too unassertive to do much about it, his wife is contemplating an affair with her caddish golf instructor, their teenage daughter has begun exploring the mysteries of sex with just about anyone she can get her hands on, and their sensitive young son is the kind of walking target school bullies fantasize about.

All seem resigned to a life of quiet, if genteel, desperation — that is, until Grace Hawkins, their new housekeeper, arrives magically on the scene like an angel from the blue. Lovably eccentric and devoted to a fault, Grace is the kind of servant that would make even Queen Elizabeth II grin with giddy satisfaction. She can cook like a dream (“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” she chirpily declares), is equally adept as a confidante as she is at performing household chores, knows all the racy passages from the Bible by heart, and has a solution for seemingly every problem. Dispensing cozy comfort at every turn, she makes Mary Poppins look like a slatternly slacker by comparison. Of course, she occasionally has to kill someone, but if it’s all for the betterment of the family in her care, then where’s the harm? Equal parts sensibility and sentiment, she’s the kind of old-fashioned thinker who believes that all of life’s problems can be solved with a nice cup of tea — and if that won’t suffice, a shovel to the head will do just as nicely.

As if this isn’t recommendation enough, the lovable old sociopath happens to be played by the divine Dame Maggie Smith, an actress of peerless comic ingenuity who knows how to wring laughs from even the flimsiest of set-ups. If the film is the kind of featherweight confection with only slightly less substance than a plate of shortbread and a pot of Earl Grey, the redoubtable Ms. Smith comes miraculously close to making it seem like a five-course dinner. It’s been a long time — far too long — since she had a comic lead to call her own, and her fans will be gratified to know that her sense of timing and gift for priceless inflection haven’t diminished a fraction of an inch. A vision in tweed and sensible shoes, her presence here brings to mind Margaret Rutherford, the plummy-voiced, doughy-faced clown who graced many British comedies of the postwar era; the film itself, a pleasant little trifle that’s not nearly as clever as it would like us to believe, feels like something from that period. If you enjoy the sort of gently risqué, mildly droll Ealing comedies of the 1950s — the kind that usually starred Alec Guinness or Alastair Sim — Keeping Mum may provide a warm rush of nostalgia. If this sort of thing isn’t to your liking (and I know plenty of people who gagged at the similarly twee charms of modern-day Ealings like Waking Ned Devine and Saving Grace), you’ll probably still get a kick out of Smith. Whether brewing up endless pots of tea, helping the vicar to write his sermons, or cutting the brake lines on the bicycle of an 11-year-old bully, she radiates charm, warmth, and a blissfully happy sense of true-blue lunacy.

If Keeping Mum doesn’t give Smith the opportunity to show what dizzying heights she can truly be capable of, it is nonetheless a welcome showcase for her distinctive talents and persona. This isn’t Dame Maggie in full comic flight — you’ll have to look to 1985’s A Private Function for the most recent example of that — but she nevertheless transcends the limitations of the material quite effortlessly, as does Kristin Scott Thomas, who mines her character’s tense exasperation for deliciously sly humor. Rowan Atkinson is reliably funny in nebbish mode, and as for Patrick Swayze, as the libidinous American golf pro — well, if you’re not a fan of the actor, rest assured that Nanny Grace will see to it that his presence in the film, which she judges to be disruptive to the family’s happiness, will be mercifully short-lived.

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