Keeping Mum plays out as if you could maybe imagine Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) relocated into the setting of something like The Vicar of Dibley (1994-2007) or Ballykissangel (1996-2001). Although, if anything, Keeping Mum plays like a dark version of the same years Nanny McPhee (2005). In both Keeping Mum and Nanny McPhee, a sinister woman arrives and turns a household on its head although here, instead of having supernatural powers, she turns out to be an axe murderer. Some scenes like where Maggie Smith causes the bullies bikes to go over the wall and she evokes Toby Parkes to say the word broccoli almost seem to be hearkening towards a magical interpretation a la Nanny McPhee. In both films, the enigmatic old dame has a wise eye that spots the problems of the household, while her string-pulling behind the scenes serves to have a transformative effect on the family.
Certainly, the idea of a blackly murderous comedy taking place in a quaintly rural British setting has potential. In the hands of say the Coen Brothers the material might have proven hysterical. Unfortunately, in the hands of director Niall Johnson, everything plays out down around the level of a quaintly mumsy British rural comedy. There is a frustrating banality to Keeping Mum where the humour rarely ever emerges into being funny. It is as though Niall Johnson seems to think people running around is funny enough in itself. Never in any of his set-ups does he deign to search for a gag. His greatest crime is to fail to push the material to where it could have had a genuine blackness. There are several scenes where the dialogue has been designed to play on two levels and hold double meanings the meeting between Patrick Swayze and Rowan Atkinson at the soccer game; Patrick Swayze and Kristin Scott Thomas discussing going away together in front of Maggie Smith in a cafe; and most effectively where Liz Smiths rantings about the Flower Arranging Circle is taken as her trying to blackmail people with knowledge about the murders. This could have been hysterical in another directors hands but Niall Johnson fumbles it. As it is, Keeping Mum feels like it has been designed as an easy sell for cosy rural audiences of Britains Home Counties. The most evocative scene Johnson manages is the one where Rowan Atkinson discovers the erotic potential of the Song of Solomon as he narrates it in voiceover while watching Kristin Scott Thomas undress for bed.
The predictable script and Niall Johnsons failure to make the film funny is saved somewhat by a good cast. This includes some decent work from the wonderfully classy Kristin Scott Thomas. In particular, Maggie Smith steals the show with her dry delivery whenever she is around. Rowan Atkinson has always been a favourite with shows like Blackadder (1983-9) and Mr Bean (1990-5) but has shown an inability to transfer that success to cinema screens with dreary performances in the likes of Scooby-Doo (2002), Johnny English (2003) and Love Actually (2003). His Reverend Goodfellow is a wet-eared nebbish who fails to engender much likeability onscreen, although to Rowan Atkinsons credit the character does come to life towards the end, especially in the scene when he gives his speech at the church conference.
(Winner for Best Supporting Actress (Maggie Smith) at this sites Best of 2005 Awards).