Imagine one of the darker Ealing Comedies, say KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS/’49, & that old American standby about those murdering biddies, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE/’44, merging with MARY POPPINS/’64. That’s the idea behind this blackly comic tale of a dysfunctional family and their new, sweetly sensible, if criminally insane housekeeper. American writer Richard Russo (NOBODY’S FOOL/’94; EMPIRE STATE/’05) brings a mordant tone & Old Testament sensibilities to a picturesque English village where Rowan Atkinson, nicely playing things straight, is the absent-minded Vicar who’s lost control of his life at home & work. His lovely wife Kristin Scott Thomas is all but throwing herself at the sleazy local golf pro (Patrick Swayze) for comfort & attention while their clinging son is getting trashed by bullies at school and their daughter is busy screwing trash. Enter new housekeeper Maggie Smith, practically perfect in every way, to sort things out . . . with a blunt instrument. You know the filmmakers are playing for keeps when a barking dog gets ‘offed’ in the night, and those taunting classmates are deliberately placed in harm’s way. What a jolly lot of accidents! Once you adjust to the down-and-dirty playing level, the wickedly sharp acting and neatly rhymed story win you over. But it's not the slightly eccentric, but friendly, little town farce you were expecting. (Be sure to run the Deleted Scenes with director Niall Johnson’s commentary track to see the bad choices & structural mistakes that kept this film from hitting its full potential.)
DOUBLE-BILL: Dame Maggie made quite a few of these dark site-specific British comedies. Try the Yorkshire-based A PRIVATE FUNCTION/’85, with pigs & Michael Palin, which Alan Bennett wrote for her before their tour-de-force one-woman monologue BED AMONG THE LENTILS/’88.