The British character spoof — targeting that fastidious archetype that solves problems by putting the kettle on — reached a kind of apotheosis when by Monty Python first donned drag. Keeping Mum follows in this tradition, a comedy built on the hypocrisies of its prim characters. For the most part, it makes good use of familiar material, helped by a lively cast and steady direction. In the end, it seems, what really excites these reserved provincials is a good murder.
The most enjoyable portions of the film mock Mary Poppins-style children’s literature, whereby a goodhearted but lost family is set aright by a no-nonsense nanny. The Goodfellows live in the idyllic village of Little Wallop, a region of meandering country lanes, crumbling stone walls, and perfectly tended gardens. The father and local vicar, Walter (Rowan Atkinson), is absentminded, inattentive to his family’s needs, and rather dull. His wife Gloria (Kristin Scott Thomas) seeks solace in the arms of her golf instructor, an aging American lothario fond of lousy double entendres named Lance (Patrick Swayze). Daughter Holly (Tamsin Egerton) changes boyfriends daily and son Petey (Toby Parkes) is harassed by school bullies.
In need of saving, they’re soon accommodated by Grace Hawkins (Maggie Smith), a housekeeper who cleans ups their lives with a headmistress’ discipline and a twinkle in her eye. She teaches Walter how to tell a joke and please his wife, Holly how to cook, and Petey how to defend himself. As the Goodfellows have not seen the prologue of the film, which shows Grace being locked up as a psychopathic killer, they don’t worry at the sudden disappearances of townspeople who have been troubling them.
Much of the film’s bite derives from the way the Goodfellows react to their good fortune, responses that comment negatively on the ways we tend to accept unexpected benefits and ignore moral questions they may raise. Walter is working on a big sermon titled, “God’s Mysterious Ways,” and he is apt to see any positive developments in his life as the result of divine intervention; the more cynical Gloria is apt to reply, “Yes, but the devil is in the details.” Just so, when Grace’s trunk arrives before she does, Walter looks at the nametag and asks, “Do you think it’s a sign?” Gloria quips, “No, it’s just a trunk.”
It soon becomes clear that nobody wants to know the truth. As Walter at one point concludes, “The good Lord does not want us to question too much.” And this pattern soon becomes unsatisfying. In their opening scenes the Goodfellows are painted as sincerely conflicted about the shortcomings in their lives and their inability to play the picture perfect vicar’s family. These funny identifiable characters, particularly Scott Thomas’ reprehensibly selfish yet sympathetically miserable matriarch, become increasingly cartoonish and confusing as the comedy plays up its more outrageous “dark” aspects. The Goodfellows are almost completely apathetic to what goes on around them, an unrealistic reaction when compared to their earlier characterization as deep and probing beings.
In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction Patricia Highsmith writes, “I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial.” Niall Johnson’s film takes up such sentiment with some glee. The only citizens of Little Wallop at all interested in investigating the murders are a gaggle of old farts motivated by busy-body tendencies. Like Highsmith’s stories, the movie is structured as a murder mystery that is not concerned with enacting justice, where the mystery is not who-done-it (we know that), but why.
While that why in the case of Tom Ripley is impossible to fathom, Grace Hawkins exists in a comedy, and so she is, eventually, explained. Near its end, the film stops criticizing and exploring its characters’ oddities and instead revels in their awfulness. This is a rather cheap turn of events in an otherwise sharp and entertaining film, a joke where the build-up is much better than the punch line.