Thursday, September 14, 2006

Mum's the word

Rowan Atkinson gives an astonishingly quiet performance in Niall Johnson's not-quite-black-enough comedy Keeping Mum, which Thinkfilm releases today in the States. It's not Mr. Bean-quiet, with his pratfalls, but detailed character work, as a gently addled vicar who has lost touch with his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) and children. Driven to distraction, Thomas contemplates an affair with golf-teaching Lothario Patrick Swayze, an American who has rather improbably found a new swing in postcard-pretty Cornwall, lovingly filmed in widescreen by Gavin Finney. The domestic distress is firmly settled by the new housekeeper, Maggie Smith, whose problem-solving skills are on the lethal side. The makings of a rollicking farce are there, but Johnson and co-writer Richard Russo (in an unanticipated departure from more keenly observant New England-set novels and films like Nobody's Fool and Empire Falls) err toward mildness. The movie only takes off briefly toward the end, when Smith accumulates one corpse too many in the course of her family therapy, then decelerates again toward a sour closing shot that clashes with the The Trouble with Harry-style storyline.

The actors don't really mesh, either. Thomas so convincingly enacts a middle-aged wistfulness you almost believe her falling for Swayze, whose hearty leering seems to have drifted in from another kind of movie altogether (and I can't begin to imagine what's happened to his face; age, or enhancement, or an unhappy melding of the two). Smith is regally funny even without the right material to play off from--but how much more amusing it would be to see her match wits with the serpent-tongued Atkinson from just about my favorite TV sitcom, Blackadder. They'd really slay an audience, but, with the British comic in harness this time, Keeping Mum settles for a little criminal mischief instead.

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