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Friday Ramble: Keeping Mum and the Met

Arriving at the Beekman with time to spare, I discovered that I didn't have my wallet. I was fairly certain that I'd left it at home. I'd been very upset about something on my way out, and I'd evaded the usual protocols that assure that I go out into the big city well equipped. If I didn't carry my Metrocard separately, I lamented, then this wouldn't have happened. As usual, I had no small change or money of any kind in my pockets. So I walked across 67th Street to First Avenue, caught a bus, got off at 86th Street, returned to the apartment, found my wallet right where it ought to be (when I'm at home, that is), went back downstairs and caught a taxi at the bottom of the driveway. There were a few bottlenecks on Second Avenue, but I got into the Beekman thirty-five minutes after I'd made my unpleasant discovery. I did not disabuse the guy in the booth who sold me a seniors ticket.

So it will be a little while before I find out how much of Niall Johnson's Keeping Mum I missed. When I walked in, Lance (Patrick Swayze) was "helping" Gloria (Kristin Scott Thomas) with her golf swing. I'd read enough of the review to know what was going on. Gloria's husband, Walter Goodfellow (Rowan Atkinson), is a kindly twit of a vicar who has forgotten all about his wife as a woman, which is why her attentions are straying. The two young Goodfellows have problems of their own: daughter Holly (Tamsin Egerton) goes for the heavy rotation of dodgy young men, while Petey (Toby Parkes) is beset by schoolyard bullies. Onto this dreary scene - dreary because we see it from Gloria's point of view (and, marketing to the contrary notwithstanding, this is Gloria's show) - comes the new housekeeper, Grace Hawkins (Maggie Smith). Little things start to improve right away. Clarence, for example, the little dog that barks day and night, is suddenly silenced. Gloria wakes up, as if disturbed by the wonderful new silence.

It's clear pretty soon that Grace is handy with blunt objects - and more than that I cannot tell. Interesting facts about this movie: IMDb dates it to 2005, and links through to a page at Amazon suggesting that the DVD is no longer in print. (There were two for sale, and I bought one.) The story and the screenplay were written by Richard Russo. Was there a British setting (Welsh?) in the original? And, by the way, since when did Richard Russo start writing comedy? And for the matter of that, when did Niall Johnson? For Keeping Mum is indeed a comedy, even if the laughs are very dark and the feelings very tender.

Anyone with the faintest fondness for Ms Scott Thomas must see this movie - it's one of the kinky kind that, I suspect, she likes very much to make. She starts out looking almost mousey but is almost glamorous at the end. Gloria calls on everything that the actress can do, from bored-to-sobs impatience to melting kindliness. She even pulls off the implausibility of wanting to go to bed with Mr Atkinson, who would seem to exemplify the very kind of man that she could stand least.

It's hard to imagine a better Grace than Maggie Smith's, but that's true of everything Ms Smith does. Rowan Atkinson starts out at his bumbling best, but slowly accrues dignity, notably if oddly after Grace persuades him that the Song of Solomon is too all about sex. As for Patrick Swayze, he's in great shape for fifty-three, as you'll see when he takes nearly everything off. Because the one thing he's got on strikes Gloria as unspeakably tacky, he's directed to put everything back on again. Phew, you think, her virtue is intact.

When the movie was over, I walked over toward Third, caught another taxi, and had myself dropped off at 81st and Fifth. I'd have walked to the museum, or at least taken the train, if I had not been interested in lunch at the cafeteria - and uncertain of when it stops being served. Two thirty-five turned out not to be too late. Then I took the Clue-like elevator to the second floor - what a shortcut! - and headed for the south end of the building, to have another look at things that I first saw at last week. This week, I could take in New Orleans After the Flood, some of the many photographs that Robert Polidori took of the destruction down there. It's a staggering show, but not large enough to be numbing. I suspect that the photographs have a different impact on people who think that the devastation captured by Mr Polidori's lens is the result of a natural disaster. A year after Katrina, however, it becomes constructively obvious that the state of the levees' disrepair was not entirely a matter of negligence. You can just hear the Big Daddies muttering "matter of time, matter of time." There is something indecent about looking at the violation of private homes, though. It's not serious enough to make the pictures objectionable, but one passes with relief to the exterior images - all of them graced by the bluest of skies and the puffiest of clouds.

After the Vollard show - more about that next time - I wandered into the Lila Acheson Wallace galleries of Twentieth Century Art. This is stuff that I'm only beginning to like - I thank Robert Long from the bottom of my heart for awakening me to it - and it's still surprising to spend time with it. I lingered over three works: Jean Tinguely's Narva (1965), Willem de Kooning's Easter Monday (1955-58) and Clyfford Still's Untitled (1965). One entire gallery is taken up by the museum's collection of Still's large abstractions, all of which appear to be untitled. The picture that attracted my attention features upward strokes of blue from the lower left, downward shocks of red from the upper right, and a burst of cadmium in the middle. Unlike most of the other paintings, this one has a creamy background. The tricolor hues make it impossible for me not to see this work as an abstraction of the French flag, which just goes to show you what a philistine I am at heart.

On the way home, I stopped in at the Barnes & Noble above the IRT station and bought Jane Eyre, which I have never read, and Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson. Ms NOLA's enthusiasm for Ms Weber's Triangle has proved to be infectious. (September 2006)

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