Like Tatie Danielle, Keeping Mum is difficult to categorise. The reviewers call it a black comedy and their assessments range from Ebert and Rope “It’s probably one of the funniest films to come out of England in years” to Philip French “laboured and staggeringly unfunny”.
From a mother’s and grandmother’s point of view it is a delightful outrageous irreverent fantasy. The film unashamedly exploits many devices aimed at selling to an international audience. In a subtle way it thwarts expectations on so many levels that the lack of the narrative tension of a black comedy is vastly overshadowed by the profusion of film connotations, and the contradictions between everyday life and impossible desires.
The Cornwall and Isle of Man locations remind one of the many films and TV series featuring the stereotypical English sleepy village and the fisherman’s shack on the cliffs. (Saving Grace, Ladies in Lavender). The recurrent offer of a cup of tea at the most dramatic moments also adds to the English stereotype of the mise-en-scene. The bucolic shots of the vicarage, country lanes and seascapes are sometimes held too long to make the contrasting night scenes threatening but contribute to a certain audience detachment.
The casting also contributes to the detachment effect. The four main internationally known actors act here in characters far different from their often typecast roles. Atkinson, whose physical comic Mr. Bean is known all over the world, is here Walter, a kind, serious vicar. He has to be taught how to use humour in his sermons. Gloria his wife is played by Kristin Scott Thomas. In contrast to her many highly praised dramatic performances in French and English film and theatre, she is here reduced to using coarse language and expressing by many facial expressions: desire, boredom, surprise, fear, shock, disbelief. Patrick Swayzi, teen idol and sex symbol (1991 People magazine’s ‘sexiest man alive’ ), is cast as a sleazy, voyeur golf instructor. General body machismo is ridiculed in a masterly scene involving the horrified reaction of Gloria at the sight of his a vulgar cache sex. Finally Maggie Smith, aged 71 at the time, the grand often formidable British Dame is Grace the serial murderer with a sweet smile and voice, full of caring and kind intentions.
It is unusual in films to see the Mother in the sympathetic role of helping her family. Recently Last Tango in Halifax on British TV told the story of an older couple who have found each other but whose respective problem families come in the way of their hope for a quiet life together. In Keeping Mum, the desire of the Mother to see her loved ones enjoy happy lives is taken to the extreme. Grace is a woman who solves problems in her particular way. In her youth, pregnant, she killed her cheating husband and mistress and is discovered travelling with the trunk containing their bodies (the body in the trunk Arsenic and Old Lace and other dark films). 43 years later after her prison sentence she appears as housekeeper in her daughter’s household. She expects “a perfect house for a perfect family”. She finds a sexually frustrated daughter with a husband too busy to pay attention to his family, a promiscuous teenager and a bullied grandson. She is part Mary Poppins who magics away all problems and part the nanny from hell. Another stereotype of the old woman punctuates the life of the family. The busybody behind the curtain, Mrs. Carter who is desperate to talk to the vicar about the trivialities of the flower arranging team.
Besides the removal of inconvenient bodies, Grace fulfils an educational role. She not only coaches the vicar on how to make an interesting funny sermon but also how to rediscover the art of lovemaking through reading Solomon’s Song of Songs. She also teaches Holly, her grandchild that there is more sensual pleasures than sex with many partners.
From killing the barking dog who disturbs the sleep of her daughter, she progresses to kill the neighbour owner of the dog, the children who bully Petey her grandson and Gloria’s lover. It is incidental that the annoying flower arranging woman dies of a heart attack after being threatened by Grace’s frying pan.
Until the last 30 mins the pace of the film is sedate but it reaches a climax when daughter and granddaughter discover Grace’s identity and her crimes. But in the meantime we have been treated to a very funny football match with the vicar as goalkeeper (Kes) followed by a subtly cruel tete-a-tete between the husband and the lover full of double entendres.
We also hear Walter’s sermon to the convention : ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’ The sermon scenes alternate with the scenes at home giving contrasting points of view: Grace to Gloria explaining her reason for killing Lance : “your affair was ruining your whole family. You cannot expect me to sit back and do nothing about that can you … it is the least a mother can do.”
Walter at the convention: “A little God’s Grace and all our problems seem to fade away… should we question his methods or should we merely enjoy the benefits. I don’t think that the good lord wants us to question too much. My ways are not your ways.”
Contrary to Arsenic and Old Lace that ends up with the murderous sweet sisters being carted to a mental asylum, Grace takes her leave discreetly leaving behind her a grateful Gloria:” My sons rid of his bullies, my husband has become a comedian, and my nymphomaniac daughter has discovered cookery”
Keeping Mum ends up with a last twist. Health inspectors need to drain the pond that contains the dog, the neighbour, the lover and possibly his car, the persistent flower arranger. Grace is gone but Gloria and Holly, to preserve the happy family, apply Grace’s method to them. An underwater shot reveals the yellow jackets of the two workers.
To me the film reveals an interesting aspect of the role of mother/grandmother by exploring the fantasy of being able to intervene to make loved ones happy.