- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

The first image of Kristin Scott Thomas (“The English Patient”) in “Keeping Mum” is that of a very unhappy woman — she lets out a few choice profanities simply because she must face the day.

It’s hard to blame her. Gloria Goodfellow’s young son, Petey (Toby Parkes), is being bullied so much at school, he doesn’t want to go anymore. Her teenaged daughter, Holly, is having noisy sex in a van outside the house — which just happens to be the village manse. And it just happens to be Sunday. The patriarch, Rev. Walter Goodfellow (Rowan Atkinson), is giving a sermon while his wife and offspring laze about at home.

This is clearly a family in trouble.

Enter Grace Hawkins. Even her name reminds one of that other British family savior, Mary Poppins. Played by Dame Maggie Smith, Grace is a warm mixture of cook, nanny and confidante.

But “Keeping Mum” is nothing like the typical heartwarming family drama — because Grace, as we see in a prologue, just happens to be a killer.

Emilia Fox, looking remarkably like a younger version of Miss Smith, plays the young Grace, whose luggage starts leaking blood all over a train. Her trunk contains the bodies of her husband and his lover. They were going to run away together, the pregnant woman explains to the authorities: “I couldn’t very well just stand idly by and let it happen.”

Spoken by this innocent-looking English rose, it almost seems reasonable. Almost. Grace is sent to a home for the criminally insane. Her release four decades later sets off a chain of events that results in one of the funniest black comedies on screen in quite some time.

Grace works magic on the Goodfellows. Holly starts helping with dinner. That dog whose yelps keep Gloria awake at night disappears. When we see Grace at the bicycle stand with wire cutters, we know Petey’s bullies are about to get their comeuppance.

She even takes on the Goodfellow marriage. Walter is too absorbed in his parish to notice his wife is finding satisfaction in the arms of Lance, her American golf instructor. (This swarmy lothario is the perfect role for a middle-aged Patrick Swayze.) Grace reintroduces Walter to the Song of Solomon. “That is the passionate declaration of a devout man to his God,” he says. “No, it’s about sex,” Grace responds.

Walter is reminded that he has a beautiful, sensuous wife in Gloria. But that doesn’t mean Lance’s life isn’t at risk. (Keep the genre in mind.)

The British black comedy is a wonderful institution. Here it’s reinvigorated by an American, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo (“Empire Falls”), who wrote the screenplay with director Niall Johnson.

Their clever script is brought to life by some of Britain’s best. Maggie Smith is deliciously dark as the murderous Grace. Miss Scott Thomas brings her usual depth to this sparkler of a film. Young actress Tamsin Egerton (Holly) plays confidently against these serious talents. And she’s incredibly gorgeous: with her model good looks, it’s hard to take your eyes off her.

With Mr. Atkinson in a movie, you’re pretty much assured of at least one “Mr. Bean” moment; that’s his best known character. Luckily, that scene in “Keeping Mum” is funny. Giving a speech, the reverend talks mistakenly of “cod’s mysterious ways.”

Grace’s ways are mysterious, too, but they’re eventually discovered. When Gloria realizes the source of her good fortune, she asks, “Should we question God’s grace or just enjoy the benefits?” I won’t tell you what she decides. But I can say that rarely has wrongdoing been so much fun.

***

TITLE: “Keeping Mum”

RATING: R (language and some sexual content/nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Niall Johnson. Written by Niall Johnson and Richard Russo

RUNNING TIME:103 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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