Generally, one doesn’t expect Dame Maggie Smith to go running around torturing small dogs, butchering bodies and asphyxiating nosy neighbors. The veteran actress is more used to roles in which she sips tea and cattily dissects the social standing of everyone around her, as she has in classic comedies of manners like Gosford Park and Room with a View. But in the new, not-quite-black comedy Keeping Mum, she transforms herself into a sort of demented, homicidal Mary Poppins, icing anyone who threatens to upset the dysfunctional family that has hired her.
Thanks to Smith’s inspired turn — and the efforts of a spot-on supporting cast — Keeping Mum is one of those movies that’s just good enough to make you wish it were better. The film’s premise is ripe with morbid, macabre possibilities, but after a prolonged buildup, director Niall Johnson squanders all of the possibilities for bloody good fun on a tepid, ho-hum conclusion. It’s pleasant enough, but given the talent involved, most audiences will no doubt leave the theater wondering, “Is that all there is?”
Smith plays Grace Hawkins, live-in help hired by the unhinged Goodfellow clan to cook, clean and look after their promiscuous 17-year-old daughter and bullied 13-year-old son. Dad Walter (Rowan Atkinson) is the meek vicar in their small, quaint country village; Mom Gloria (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a frazzled wreck contemplating an affair with her sleazy American golf instructor (Patrick Swayze, in full-on horn-dog mode).
Grace carries with her an oddly confident demeanor, as well a very suspicious old trunk; we learn in the opening moments it’s the very same trunk she stuffed the body parts of her first husband into, after she learned he was cheating on her.
For a movie that skewers provincial British politeness, Mum has a peculiar aversion to blood and gore. Seeing the regal, stately Smith wield an ax like a lumberjack is funny the first time, but after that, you want to see it actually connect with some flesh. It’s not the cast’s fault: It’s clear from the opening scene that Atkinson (one of the most talented physical comedians on the planet), Thomas and Smith are willing to throw themselves into each screwball situation with a joyful, undignified abandon.
But due to ratings restrictions, cowardice or just poor staging, Johnson doesn’t choreograph the violence so that it stings. A pre-Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson would’ve run wild with material like this. In the ’50s, Britain’s own Ealing Studios churned out a series of black comedies — including the original Ladykillers — that were far more devilishly malicious than Mum. After a decade of mushy, soft comedies from the U.K., it’s nice to get something with a little more bite, but Johnson’s effort fails to leave any teeth marks.Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 20-21, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 22.
Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].