Dir: Niall Johnson. UK. 2005. 103mins.

Keeping Mum is acurious mish-mash: part morbid comedy in the vein ofold Ealing classic Kind Hearts And Coronets, part family drama, part Rowan Atkinsonvehicle, part murder mystery, part Mary Poppins, its disparate elements are thrown together withlittle craft or subtlety.

Director and co-writer NiallJohnson never seems quite sure what tone he is trying to strike. There are somelively moments along the way and the film builds neatly after a torpidbeginning, with the final twists handled dexterously enough.

But storytelling isfrequently undermined by tin-eared dialogue, non-sequiturs and a strangecombination of sadism and sentimentality.

Johnson (who achieved somefestival recognition with his 1998 ensemble piece The Big Swap) has a formidable cast at his disposal. Rowan Atkinson(playing a mild-mannered English vicar) is one of the few British comedianswith proven international pulling power. Maggie Smith (the housekeeper with themurderous past) has been associated with some notable British box-officesuccesses of recent years (Gosford Park and Ladies In Lavenderamong them.) Kristin Scott-Thomas (the vicar's sexually frustrated wife) is aformidable actress while the casting of Patrick Swayze(a philandering golf professional) adds at least a little curiosity value.

Released without fanfare inthe UK last week, Keeping Mum is nota film that critics nor audiences are likely to make a lot of noise about (athome it opened on around $1.1m from just over 300 screens).

Beyond the UK, the problemfor distributors will be that Johnson does not play entirely to his actors'strengths. Atkinson is given some funny business along the way but this is farfrom a comic vehicle along the lines of Beanor Johnny English. Even when he ismaking a fool of himself in goal during a charity football match or giving atalk on God's mysterious ways, he remains in relatively restrained mode.

Smith and Scott-Thomasstrive to add a little emotional depth to proceedings but they're frequentlythwarted by the lacklustre writing and over-reliance on caricature.

It is also hard to see justwhich audience Keeping Mum is aimedat. Younger cinemagoers may be put off by a film with the trappings ofmiddle-brow TV drama while the older, upscale crowd that flocked in suchnumbers to Gosford Park may find the humour here too brazenand vulgar for their tastes.

Keeping Mumopens with a flashback. There is a sepia-toned prelude set "43 years ago" inwhich we're introduced to Rosie Jones (Emilia Fox), abetrayed wife who somehow maintains her cheeriness - despite travelling bytrain with a trunk dripping with what we assume to be the blood of her murderedhusband. Once Rosie has safely been dispatched behind bars, we're whiskedforward to the present day.

The setting now is thesleepy village of Little Wallop. The local vicar (Atkinson) is so worried aboutparish matters that he scarcely notices his teenage daughter's nymphomania andinvariably forgets to pick up his bullied young son from school. Nor does hepay much attention to his frustrated wife, who therefore begins to flirt withan American golf professional. "I bet you could swing really well," Swayze tells Scott-Thomas, "grip that shaft gently but firmly.Spread your legs."

It's to the actors' creditthat they're able to bring at least a measure of conviction to lines that wouldnot sound out of place in a bad British sitcom of the 1970s.

When the new housekeeperGrace Hawkins (Smith) turns up at the Rectory, she has the same transformingeffect as Mary Poppins once did on the Bankshousehold. The key difference is that she doesn't use magic. Her weapons tendto be blunter - any household utensil with which she can kill off the family'svarious tormentors.

There is a strangeambivalence in the film's attitude toward Grace. On the one hand, she is asweet little old lady. On the other, she is a roaring psychotic. And Johnsonsometimes asks us to laugh at antics which seem more cruel than funny (forinstance, her killing off of the neighbour's yapping dog.)

In Kind Hearts And Coronets, Robert Hamer was able to make audiences identify with a massmurderer by providing him with gilt-edged dialogue and endless reserves ofchutzpah. It's a trick that the film-makers here fail to emulate.

Production company
Tusk Productions

UK distribution

International sales
Summit Entertainment

Executive producers
Steve Wilkinson
Anne Sheehan
Steve Christian
Marc Samuelson
Bertil Ohlsson
David Garrett

Julia Palau
Matthew Payne

Richard Russo
Niall Johnson

Gavin Finney

Robin Sales

Production design
Crispian Sallis

Dickon Hinchliffe

Main cast
Rowan Atkinson
Kristin Scott Thomas
Maggie Smith
Patrick Swayze
Tamsin Egerton
Toby Parkes
Liz Smith
Emilia Fox