The curse of Mary Poppins
A spoonful of poison makes the medicine go down

by Judith Reynolds

Poor Mary Poppins. A new, tell-all biography of the British super nanny’s inventor, Mary Travers, has just come out, and it’s not flattering. A lavish Broadway musical by Disney Theatricals/Cameron Mackintosh opened this fall with a spate of problems. Last week, the house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane got stuck on its turntable. At least one performance had to be canceled. In October, the London counterpart sprang a backstage leak in Act I, dousing the entire set in water. More cancellations. And that’s not even mentioning reviews.

And now we have “Keeping Mum,” a new British flick showing at the Abbey through next week. “Mum” is a dark parody of the Poppins franchise, giving us a Mary P. for our cynical century.

In the grand tradition of the miracle woman who mysteriously descends on a troubled British household, Grace Hawkins (Maggie Smith) magically arrives in Little Wallop and solves everyone’s problems. No perky Julie Andrews here. Smith’s Grace has a jaundiced eye that sardonically rides above a black heart.

Despite a top-shelf cast, Dame Smith as the quietly haywire housekeeper, the bumbling comedian Rowan Atkinson as the village idiot-vicar, the frosty Kristin Scott Thomas as his frustrated wife, and the tanned and hard-bodied Patrick Swayze as her American Lothario, the so-called comedy sinks under the weight of a leaden script.

The Brits used to have ye olde village murder-comedy down pat. Remember Alec Guinness in “The Ladykillers” (1956)? What’s happened?

Director Niall Johnson, whose specialty is horror films, may have thought he could jump into comedy’s pond dragging death and mayhem with him and still be funny. He’s based his film on a Poppinsesque story by American college professor-cum screenwriter Richard Russo (“Empire Falls,” “Nobody’s Fool”). Together Johnson and Russo have crafted a screenplay so full of obvious plot holes, you can drive a lorry through it.

A prologue sets up the sweet yet murderous heroine, Rosemary Jones (Emilia Fox). Pregnant and always pleasing, Rosie takes tea while riding a train through dappled English countryside. She’s traveling with a trunk that slowly oozes blood. At the station the bobbies show up. Rosie smilingly tells them her husband was about to run off with his mistress, so she bopped them. They pop her off to an institution for the criminally insane.


Leap ahead 43 years to the hamlet of Little Wallop. Gloria Goodfellow, a dark-haired beauty, is stuck in a miserable marriage with Walter, an otherwise preoccupied pastor. Their two children are also stuck: Holly (Tamsin Egerton) to too many punky boyfriends and Petey (Toby Parkes) to those British stalwarts, schoolyard bullies. Time for the return of Mary Poppins in the form of the aging Grace, the Zorro of British kitchens, nurseries and marital bedrooms. Her agenda: Save the family.

To be fair, there is humor at the beginning as Director Johnson fleshes out his characters. How can you miss with the likes of Atkinson, Smith and Scott Thomas? And all the production values are of the highest quality. Designer Crispian Sallis delivers the lush English countryside in all its green and golden textures, a picturesque village, even a smashing coastal scene for an assignation. Gloria and Lance finally find picturesque privacy in a cottage by the sea. It’s one of the few truly funny scenes in the whole movie.

But the script is an anchor dragging the whole ship down. The ploy to get the vicar out of town sets up a planned lovers’ flight. Grace-Mary knows about it, so why not send Lothario to his reward? Grace-Mary has already dispensed with other troublesome people and, unforgivably, a neighborhood dog – to show you how far the director-writer will go to push the parody over the edge.

Mary Poppins used a smile, persuasion, and sweet medicine. Grace-Mary uses a smile, a shovel, a frying pan or any other common household appliance to solve problems – off screen, thank your lucky scones.

As the plot thickens, the movie becomes totally bizarre. At this point, the village busybody Mrs. Parker (Liz Smith) stumbles into a chintz-lined spider web. And if you know she is played by Maggie Smith’s mother, the scene has a little frisson. That soon fades as the movie plods forward to its swampy resolution.

The times may be against a revival of the British murder-comedy. Too many people are dying in wars around our uncertain world today. When “Arsenic and Old Lace” triumphed on Broadway in 1939, it was a fresh, black comedy sensation. The play was followed by Frank Capra’s film starring Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster in 1944. The elderly Brewster sisters hid bodies here and there in a well-mannered, perfectly “civilized” neighborhood – and got away with murder.

This Mary Poppins-for-our-time, however, caters to our worst, most cynical selves. The cast and the production values may be superior, but this is a fundamentally crass and stupid film. •



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