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Minding one's manners - or else

Published October 19, 2006

Keeping Mum (R) (103 min.) Think Mary Poppins with a blithely homicidal streak.

That's the gist of Maggie Smith's character in Niall Johnson's pleasantly dark comedy. Smith plays kindly old Grace Hawkins, who makes the medicine for social transgressors go down with something stronger than a spoonful of sugar.

Grace's penchant for drastic discipline is clear from the prologue, set 50 years earlier. When her trunk begins leaking blood on a train, her remedy for her husband's unfaithfulness is clear. He and his lover wouldn't fit inside except in pieces.

Grace was sentenced to a prison for the criminally insane. Now she's free, carrying the same trunk into the English village of Little Wallop (pop. 57 and soon dropping).

She arrives at the doorstep of the Goodfellow family, ready to resolve their problems, starting with a neighbor's persistently barking dog.

Not all of Grace's efforts are deadly.

She helps the pious vicar Walter Goodfellow (Rowan Atkinson) find inspiration for a speech he's delivering at a clergy convention and to find passion for his wife, Gloria (Kristin Scott-Thomas). Their promiscuous daughter Holly (Tamsin Egerton) needs lessons in propriety.

Gloria's patience with Walterhas worn thin, sending her into the arms of her American golf instructor, Lance (Patrick Swayze).

Keeping Mum is constantly amusing and seldom laugh-out-loud funny. The tone is a throwback to Ealing Studio comedies of the 1940s and 1950s, in which tasteful amorality and understated punchlines ruled.

Even Atkinson resists most of his Mr. Bean impulses, creating a sweet, sympathetic character rather than a cartoon.

Swayze's leering performance - Lance can't resist golf-related double-entendres - doesn't quite fit the classy production, but that's an ugly American angle Johnson and co-writer Richard Russo (Empire Falls) wanted.

Smith and Scott-Thomas make Keeping Mum worth watching. They're a grand dame mocking her prim screen image and an actor slyly holding her sensuality in check to suit her character. Take away the jokes and these would still be two fine dramatic turns.

Keeping Mum doesn't mean much when it ends, but for a while we're in clever company. B

STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

[Last modified October 18, 2006, 10:40:21]

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