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MOVIE REVIEW

Dark comedy's a little light on laughs

``And Patrick Swayze." They're three words you never expect to see in opening credits of a British movie. Yet there they are, and there he is, making out with Kristin Scott Thomas (so this is where she's been?) in ``Keeping Mum." The movie is another of those harmless and politely made dark comedies that the English seem incapable of doing without.

Swayze plays Lance, a randy American golf instructor. His favorite pupil is Gloria Goodfellow (Scott Thomas), the sexually frustrated wife of Walter, a humorless vicar, whom Rowan Atkinson plays. (If I told you he was bumbling and clueless, would you be shocked?) The Goodfellows have just hired a housekeeper named Grace Hawkins (Maggie Smith) to live in their lovely country home.

Grace instantly befriends Petey (Toby Parkes), the Goodfellows' picked-on young son, and charms Holly (Tamsin Egerton), the family's slatternly daughter. (The running joke with her involves a new boyfriend for every scene.) While Gloria and Lance try to consummate their affair and Walter cruises the Internet in search of -- wait for it -- Jesus jokes, dear old Grace is murdering the neighbors in true Looney Toons fashion with, for instance, a whack to the head.

Among Grace's secrets is that she was locked up some 40 years earlier for killing her husband and his mistress. So much for background checks at that housekeeping agency.

Dame Maggie comports herself with utmost decorum, even -- or especially -- when wielding a deadly frying pan or rooting for a gang of schoolboys to ride their tampered-with bicycles off the road. The murders are played for laughs, and some of them are funny. But the screenplay by the novelist Richard Russo and Niall Johnson, who directed, is half hearted and too casual to be rousing. You're desperate for a surprise. And, no, that big bloodline revelation doesn't count. But the idea of Swayze as a John Waters-style pervert does.

On several occasions, Lance can be seen outside the Goodfellows' house, with his video camera pointed into Holly's bedroom. Swayze may not be doing any dancing here but he's as dirty as he wants to be.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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