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Unlike American films where situation and reaction are usually the
dominant elements of comedy, English cinema has a tendency to rely on
outrageous or eccentric characterisation. It usually works well on a
detailed level with typical stock characters such as irascible
colonels, domineering great-aunts and frightfully keen twits but, quite
often, individual actors get so caught up in their own characters that
the film as a whole loses its sense of coherence.
The Missionary is a very traditional English comedy with the usual over-the-top collection of the innocent, the incompetent, the mad, the prim and proper and the sex-starved but, in this case, the characters lock well into each other like a jigsaw. Maybe it is due to a certain respect that stars like Maggie Smith, Michael Palin and Trevor Howard had for each other as they try to complement rather than overshadow each others' performances.
Once you find the pitch of the humour, this is a gem of a comedy and worth seeing alone for the batty directionally-challenged butler played by Michael Hordern.
I won't detail the plot as that's been covered rather extensively in the other comments. If you refrain from expecting a Monty Python movie, you'll find it much easier to enjoy The Missionary. It's not a Python movie. It's not outrageously funny though it does have some very funny moments, some hilarious. Most of the humor however is much more subtle, possibly too much so for many viewers. A great cast.
A bit like "Ripping Yarns" I think you need an appreciation or at least
familiarity with the mores of late Victorian/Edwardian society. This film
appears to be a gentle comedy of manners but there is a hint of satire
I have liked this film since I first saw it years ago. I have had this on tape for some time but recently bought the DVD which has some nice extras.
The cinematography is good. Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott and Michael Hordern can do no wrong. Trevor Howard blusters in a suitable 'Lord Cardigan' manner and you get an early Timothy Spall role.
I gave it 8/10. Unrepentant. It's a slow burner but still has a charm of its own.
You don't have to be a fan of Monty Python in general, or Michael Palin
in particular, to enjoy "The Missionary". It's gently British humour
conceals a razor sharp satirical edge, and there is something new to
spot with every fresh viewing.
With Maggie Smith in the lead role, making the whole thing look as effortless as ever, it's easy to miss the outstanding performances from such icons as Michael Hordern and Tim Spall, the latter looking like a parody of himself as a servant of, shall we say, basic stock.
Phoebe Nichols delights and charms as the appalling Deborah and Denholm Elliott oozes charm as an outrageously un-Christian bishop. The characters are classics of comedy yet they still surprise. A satisfying dollop of bad taste completes the mixture. Unmissable.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
To celebrate my 500th review for IMDb, I turn to another of my
favourite films. The Reverend Charles Fortescue is an Edwardian
clergyman who has spent ten years working as a missionary in Africa. He
returns to England and is asked by the Bishop of London to run a
Mission to Fallen Women in the East End. Fortescue sets about his new
task with vigour, supported by a generous donation from the wealthy
Lady Ames, and the Mission proves a great success. Suspicions begin to
grow, however, that Fortescue is offering the young women of the
Mission something more than spiritual comfort, and that Lady Ames's
interest in his work is motivated by something other than philanthropic
This is one of a number of films made by the former Pythons since their partnership came to an end; Michael Palin not only wrote the script but also appears as Fortescue. Several of these films show the clear influence of the famous Ealing comedies, and it is obvious that some at least of the Pythons must have a deep admiration for that series, even though the style of their early comedy was very different. "A Fish Called Wanda", which starred Palin and John Cleese, was directed by the Ealing veteran Charles Crichton, and there are clear thematic links between "A Private Function" (Palin again) and "Passport to Pimlico" and between "Splitting Heirs" (Cleese and Eric Idle) and "Kind Hearts and Coronets".
Like "Kind Hearts ..", "The Missionary" is set among the Edwardian upper classes. It does not have any direct thematic links to any of the Ealing films, but does have a similar style of humour, updated to suit the changing tastes of the eighties. Jokes about sex, for example, can be much more direct than would have been possible in the forties or fifties. This is not, however, a simple satire on Edwardian attitudes to sex and religion. It is a very different film to the ghastly "Best House in London", which was set in the Victorian period and took the line that prostitution is all jolly good rollicking fun.
"The Missionary", in fact, is a comedy about sex which (unlike most British comedies on that subject) avoids smuttiness and a comedy about religion which avoids the standard line that religious believers are all either fools or hypocrites. Although there is some fun at the expense of the Bishop, the film does capture the ethos of Edwardian "Muscular Christianity" with its progressive social attitudes and emphasis on good works. Prostitution is shown as a social evil because it leads to the exploitation and degradation of working-class women, and the Church's opposition to it is seen as both morally justified and socially progressive.
Palin plays Fortescue as a mixture of ardent social reformer and holy innocent, a kindly, well-intentioned man whose good intentions reflect many of the assumptions of his age. (He assumes, for example, that the African children he is teaching need to know all about English mediaeval history). He ends up sleeping with the young women of the Mission almost by accident- they all fall in love with him because he is the only man who has ever shown them kindness or has treated them as anything other than sex objects. Fortescue is not, however, the most comic character in the film; indeed, for much of the time he appears to be playing straight man to the others, who all have their own eccentricities. There is the aristocratic nymphomaniac Lady Ames and her ferociously reactionary husband, played by Trevor Howard as the comic equivalent of his Lord Cardigan in "The Charge of the Light Brigade". (The use of the hymn "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" provides another link between the two films). There is their comically inept butler Slatterthwaite, forever unable to navigate his way round their palatial stately home.
Denholm Elliott plays the Bishop as hearty and obsessed with sport, especially boxing and cricket. I first saw "The Missionary" in the cinema with two college friends and we were amused by the resemblance of the Bishop to one of our lecturers, who also peppered his conversation with cricketing clichés like "batting on a sticky wicket". Elliott and Maggie Smith, who plays Lady Ames, were later to star with Palin in "A Private Function". My favourite performance, however, came from the lovely Phoebe Nicholls as Fortescue's terminally naïve fiancée Deborah, totally unable to understand the concept of "fallen women". ("Women who have hurt their knees?"). She also has a passion for neatness and order and has devised a fantastically intricate filing system for keeping track of her fiancé's love-letters.
Palin had already proved himself to be a great comedian; in "The Missionary" and "A Private Function" he also proved himself a great comic actor, just as Cleese had done in "Fawlty Towers". The two things are not necessarily the same; there are several British comedians- Dudley Moore being a good example- who never seemed as funny on the big screen as they did in their stage and TV routines. Palin was later also to prove himself a very good serious actor in "American Friends", another film in which he plays a likable Anglican clergyman. It is interesting that he should have twice given a sympathetic portrayal of men of the cloth- perhaps the Pythons were not all as anti-religious as those who criticised them for their "Life of Brian" assumed.
Besides some wonderful performances, "The Missionary" also has some great lines and together with "A Private Function" it is the best of the post-Python comedies and one of the funniest British films of the eighties. 10/10.
In England in 1906, a young reverend, with a sense of vocation and just
before marriage, is entrusted to open a house of refuge for fallen ladies
East End. He is then seduced by the grateful girls and a witty,
lady nob, who is ready to support the institute.
A fitfully amusing, crisply acted, often sophisticated period comedy whose central conception - prostitutes do what they do for pleasure - is slightly absurd to say the least. Most of its fun is provided by the garnish.
This is a delightful film. Watch it with two or three of you in the
room, because laughter is infectious. As ever with films that Harrison
invests in, it's not afraid to mix styles, but also, there is no point
that it labours. Too often films are afraid of changing their tone, as
if they had to nail their colours to the 'tonal' mast early on and then
obey that: a screwball comedy has to be screwball, a period piece has
to be charming, engaging, but not dramatic, etc etc etc.
The script, written by Palin himself, is an absolute gem, and for once his silliness is kept well within bounds. As someone else said, this isn't the 'expansio ad absurdum' technique of fine, fine Python, nor the pull-faces-and-use-silly-words-can't-think-of-an-idea of Palin on his off days. Enough, but not enough, has been written about the cast, all of whom provide top-notch performances. Whom to praise most? I note as well, that the "Memorable Quotes" section still misses what may be the funniest exchange in the whole film, the sequence which begins, "You know perfectly well why we got rid of Margetson." The only people who are going to be disappointed by this film are those people who have dogmatic views about what a Palin film should be, or who think a comedy should spare them the trouble of thinking and leave them in a heap of rubble on the floor. Take the film on its own merits and, though you might think of ideas which the film didn't touch, places where it didn't go, you will still find enough in there to remember those ninety minutes fondly. Would I see it again? When's it on next?
I really like this film. It's just one of those films that bring a
smile to your face. There are some fantastic moments: Roland Culver
dying while Michael Palin obliviously continues with his speech,
Michael Hordern as the butler who doesn't know where he's going,
Michael Palin being propositioned by a lady of the night (and
accepting). It's just a very charming film.
One thing that did strike me about it though is how we find situations acceptable if they are transported into the past. I don't think it would be considered very funny to make a film in which a Reverend lets three child prostitutes into his bed at once if it was set in today's London. We can laugh about the hypocritical sexual shenanigans of the Victorians though. Paedophilia's funny as long as it's in the distant past.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I've seen this movie in the ORIGINAL WIDESCREEN VERSION with audiences
as diverse as art house theaters, US Navy ships on deployment, and home
viewing with friends, and even in the midst of sailors on 8 month
deployments there was a genuine enjoyment of the plot and characters.
What a shame the excellence has been completely gutted from the film by
a horrible Pan and Scan adaptation. It is for such criminal efforts
that whipping posts should be retained in public squares.
The movie is a period piece that is more like a Gosford Park with humor than a Pretty Woman as a Victorian costume drama. Handmade Films were ALWAYS films that "teemed with quiet fun", and this one is no exception.
However, when HALF THE SCREEN IS MISSING IT'S HARD TO APPRECIATE THE HUMOR! There's the irony of two men of the cloth talking about the soul building merit of sport, as they pass a bloody-faced 'sport' being hammered into a boxing ring turnbuckle, BUT that's all lost when you don't see the bloody-faced 'sport'. There's the maid in the house forever hovering like some dark force of unrequited passion, together with the swish-swish of her dress, BUT that's all lost when you RARELY see the maid, and you certainly don't see the expressions on her face when the action is allegedly on the other characters in the scene.
There's also the scene at the end that's been 'edited out' of recent releases of this film where the butler, Michael Hordern, ends up getting into bed with the divorced husband of the heroine of the film, Maggie Smith.
Finally, there's the absolutely ROUSING Music Hall finale, where half the screen is devoted to an obvious 'offspring' of Fortesque turning over a scrapbook that details the life of the main characters after the film ends. It's such a great scene that I've had people request to see just IT as a sort of finale to a night's worth of movie viewing.
IT'S THAT GOOD! Without these scenes and half-scenes, what was an excellent plot, full of irony and modern sympathies, is butchered.
To paraphrase Roy Batty from Bladerunner, "All those moments are lost in time, like tears in the rain" by a transfer to Pan and Scan.
If you can find a letterbox transfer of this movie, BUY IT if you enjoy the Handmade Films genre; if you like Time Bandits even though it isn't Jurassic Park.
Otherwise, the only thing to do is hope that some day, some way the 'long tail' theory of online video rental will provide it to people who can appreciate clever and interesting cinema.
I've recently finished reading Michael Palin's second set of diaries
("Halfway to Hollywood"), which includes sections covering the
real-time writing and filming of this particular film and so was
pleased to get the chance to view it.
It's a pleasantly diverting comedy taking gentle pot-shots at snobbery, the English class system, the church and as the title makes clear, the Edwardian outlook on sex, peopled by a top-drawer British cast in very good form.
Palin himself takes the lead part and if lacking a little in the masculine virility I think the part calls for, nonetheless masters as you'd expect the comic delivery for which he's well regarded. To be fair, he is definitely outshone by his co-lead, Maggie Smith, as the repressed wife of a titled benefactor, late of the street herself as Smith herself relates to us in a disarming Cockney accent near the end. Michael Hordern does a hilarious little cameo as a befuddled butler, likewise Denholm Elliott as a "sporty" bishop and Trevor Howard as the frightfully frightfully titled patron-husband of Smith. I also liked Phoebe Nicholl's little turn as Palin's dim and virginal intended bride with a penchant for cataloguing. Some of the characters do, however, seem like leftovers from Palin's wonderful "Ripping Yarns" series and occasionally the film does veer off the track a little too much into farce territory with the ending tapering off somewhat, but with Palin the writer often employing the familiar trick of finishing scenes with amusing jokes, he just about keeps the film on an even keel for its not overlong playing time.
As for the direction, I did find the lighting a little gloomy at times and I suppose lack of budget could have been slightly to blame for not quite delivering a convincing depiction of the squalid streets of London where Palin looks to lift up his fallen women (in the Gladstonian sense of the phrase, naturally).
On the whole though, a likable, at times highly amusing light comedy rather making me sad a little that Michael later got lost on his worldly travels (entertaining as they've been), at the expense of his writing and acting skills.
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