When and if they ever release an audio version of The Bible read by your favourite English comedians, I hope they’ll get Rowan Atkinson to perform The Song of Solomon. There’s nothing quite like hearing Atkinson wrap his brain and teeth around “Your two breasts are like two fawns/ twins of a gazelle/ that feed among the lilies.” In the mouth of the man who gave us Mr. Bean‘s bafflement and Black Adder‘s scowl. In a way, it’s a lot like watching sweet old Maggie Smith flatten a dog’s skull with a shovel. There’s something just so off-kilter about the whole thing that you can’t help but laugh.
Niall Johnson’s Keeping Mum is frightfully obvious and unfortunately uneven, but it is a throwback to the kind of dark English comedy that has sadly gone the way of the dodo. It’s not political or relevant and it doesn’t have anything to say about modern life. It’s not visually stunning or well-paced. It doesn’t even deliver a significant pay-off at the end. But Keeping Mum holds its tongue in its cheek with such composed mastery, that you really have to doff your hat to it. Any story whose implicit moral is that the key to happiness is having a nice old lady kill a few people (while you shrug it off as “divine grace”) has a friend in me.
Forty years ago, Rosie Jones (Smith) killed her husband and his lover, stuffing their bodies in her travel trunk, and thus became England’s most jovial and polite prison inmate. Upon gaining her release, Rosie (now renamed Grace Hawkins) descends on the hamlet of Little Wallop (pop. 57), taking a job as the housekeeper for the local vicar’s family. Rev Goodfellow (Atkinson) is a stuffy old ecclesiastic who’s so absorbed in his tweeds and his Book of Job that he doesn’t notice his sexually-frustrated wife (Kristen Scott Thomas) has fled to the arms of a weasely American golf pro (Patrick Swayze). His teenage daughter is a statuesque nymphomaniac and his son is bullied at school. Grace, the portrait of a demure old English woman, pulls an instant Mary Poppins. Soon, the children are happy and the vicar’s libido has been re-awakened (by the aforementioned piece of Biblical erotica). And all Grace had to do was go on a mini-murderous rampage.
The real strength in this one is the performances. While Swayze (who seems to have found a new niche playing morally decrepit sleazeballs) is a goddawful ham, Smith, Atkinson and Thomas are all note-perfect. It’s tough to know how North American audiences will react to this little film, but for those looking for a class on the art of comedic understatement and deadpan humour, look no further.