In the competition for cinema’s worst genre, the Quirky British Comedy About Eccentric Countryfolk Learning Valuable Lessons In Outrageous Circumstances truly has no rival. The latest addition to this genus is Niall Johnson’s Keeping Mum, a feeble fable in which the unhappy clan of small-town vicar Walter Goodfellow (Rowan Atkinson) comes to grasp with the importance of family. The agent of change for these unhappy Brits is new housekeeper Grace (Dame Maggie Smith), a malevolent Mary Poppins just released from prison after years of serving time for having, as a young woman, offed and dismembered her husband and his mistress, and then cheerfully stuffed them in her trunk.
Grace believes in problem-solving through homicide, first doing away with the yelping dog that keeps Walter’s cheating wife Gloria (Kristen Scott Thomas) from getting a decent night’s rest, and then other pests who might potentially stand in the way of her employers’ happiness. Of course, as a killer with a heart of gold—or, at least, a belief that sometimes lethal measures are necessary to extricate oneself from trouble—Grace also finds time to dish out uniquely helpful advice with regard to Walter and Gloria’s crumbling relationship, as well as to fix son Petey’s (Toby Parkes) troubles with bullies (by attempting to exterminate them, naturally) and daughter Holly’s (Tamsin Egerton) sluttiness (turn her onto cooking!). It’s murder most cute, though there’s nothing adorable or endearing about Smith’s performance, full of knowing looks and devious smiles that exhibit more than a tinge of self-satisfied, aren’t-I-cheeky smugness.
Because director Johnson lets us in on Grace’s unfunny secret criminal past from the outset, the film squanders any minor potential for wringing humor out of the mystery regarding Grace’s odd behavior, a misstep in accordance with its rushed third act and generally creaky conservatism (not only its stand-by-your-man, no-sex-outside-marriage family values, but also its avoidance of real violence). The quaint, sunshiny village where all this mortal merriment takes place is called Little Wallop, an appropriate name for an import which—even when Patrick Swayze appears, as Gloria’s golf instructor/extramarital lover, to skewer his Dirty Dancing persona—remains comically punchless.