Maggie Smith may have third billing in Keeping Mum, but she and Patrick Swayze—as Grace the murderer and Lance the lecherous golf instructor, respectively—supply the only flashes of fiendishness in this by-the-numbers black comedy set in the English countryside. When Grace and Lance are absent, we’re left in the company of Vicar Goodfellow (Rowan Atkinson), his wife Gloria (Kristin Scott Thomas) and their children, Holly (Tamsin Egerton) and Petey (Toby Parkes), small-town stereotypes who must induce the British to somnolence. All are residents of the Village of Little Wallop, which has less than a little, and makes you yearn for the wartime reprobates of Whisky Galore or their impish successors in Waking Ned Devine.
Grace, hired as household help, arrives to find the Goodfellow family in dire straits: Gloria is planning to run off with Lance; Petey is pursued by a group of schoolyard bullies; and 17-year-old Heather changes sex partners more often than she changes clothes. The vicar, a kind but humorless man, fails to notice any of it. If the film hadn’t begun with the discovery of a trunk into which a pregnant Grace had placed her husband and his mistress 43 years ago, murdered and dismembered, there would be some element of surprise in her brief stay in Little Wallop. As it is, Keeping Mum goes about its business (as does Grace) with workmanlike predictability.
A disturbing undercurrent of the film, the result of inveigling its audience by playing to the hatred and fear of crones, eventually spoils the comedy. Although Smith guarantees that you’ll love this devilish senior, anility is indisputably exploited and demonized. The brutality of the murders Grace commits—she offs Lance by crushing his head with an iron—and the practical benefits gained by the Goodfellows from the murders, lead the audience to a kind of glee in the economy of the crimes. By contrast, in Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace, for instance, while we are charmed by the elderly murderers, Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha, and see the logic of their crimes, we are squarely on the side of Mortimer, their nephew, who understands that the ladies are insane.
For the most part, Maggie Smith and Patrick Swayze carry the film, although Liz Smith (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is excellent in an understated performance as Mrs. Parker, the pesky, long-standing head of the vicarage’s flower committee. As Lance, the golf pro who wears cowboy boots, Swayze illustrates how a seasoned actor can make the best of an ill-conceived character. Mouthing badly written double entendres, he nevertheless manages to remain deliciously lecherous and sexy through a droll manipulation of his attractiveness. A case in point is a soccer match during which Lance decides to engage his “competition,” the vicar: Lance tells him that he admires his ability to endure an awful turn as goalie, while frankly sizing up his lover’s husband with all the sneering confidence of a handsome athlete. Maggie Smith plays the thankless role of a true psychopath with equal aplomb, especially when she solves Petey’s problems as easily as she does Gloria’s.
The director of Whisky Galore, Alexander Mackendrick (an American by birth), also directed the 1955 version of The Ladykillers. Along with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry and Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap, it is the best example of how to make murder amusing. Either it must be accidental, as it was in Hitchcock’s film, or it must be bungled, as it was in The Ladykillers and Deathtrap. The problem with Keeping Mum is that the slaughter is very real and, worse, the victims are often innocent or otherwise undeserving of their fate.