Synopsis: Comedy legend Michael Palin (Monty Python’s Flying Circus) heads an all-star cast in this irresistible British comedy treat! In the early 20th Century, devout Reverend Charles Fortesque returns to England from his missionary work in Africa and, despite plans to marry his childhood sweetheart, receives a most unusual assignment: minister to the local prostitutes, located in the worst area of town. A wealthy married patron (two-time Academy Award winner Maggie Smith) offers to help improve his station, on the condition that he also minister to her… in the bedroom! A witty, delightful comedy of manners and misunderstandings, The Missionary delivers divine comedy to one and all!
The Missionary 7.75
eyelights: Michael Palin. Maggie Smith. Trevor Howard. Michael Hordern. the dialogues. the settings. the closing credits.
eyesores: Phoebe Nicholls. the final 10 minutes.
“When you have a fiancée, a lover and you have to lead 28 women of the night down the path of righteousness; you must pray for more than guidance, you must pray for strength. The Missionary: he gave his body to save their souls”.
I picked up ‘The Missionary’ on VHS many years ago, when I worked at the video store; due to diminishing returns, it was being sold off, making room for new stock. Given that it featured Michael Palin, of Monty Python fame, I decided to give it a go.
I enjoyed the picture but it left me underwhelmed: in comparison to Python’s wackiness, exuberance and nonsensical humour, it felt incredibly flat. I quite liked the story, the performances and the production, but I simply didn’t laugh; at best I chuckled or smiled along.
In fact, so tepid was my reaction that it became a go-to for late-night viewing for a while; I would put it on as unobtrusive background noise when I was trying to fall asleep – entertaining enough to keep me from being bored, but not exciting enough to prevent me from slumbering.
This time, however, I was tickled by much of what I saw and heard.
‘The Missionary’ was Michael Palin’s first solo outing since his Monty Python days (he had worked on other projects, but they often were in tandem with another Python). This would be a multi-faceted first effort: Palin not only starred in it, but wrote the script and co-produced the film.
Originally conceived as “The Missionary Position”, Palin drummed up the droll tale of a Missionary who, brought back from a 10-year stint in Africa, is called upon by the Bishop to open a mission for “fallen women”. Having waited 10 years to marry to his fiancé, he grudgingly -but dutifully- begins to court the wealthy for sponsorship.
Things don’t go quite as planned, of course: his fundraising efforts foiled by a mischievous Lady Fortune, he loosens his morals -as well as his drawers- in an effort to raise the much-needed funds. But once he crosses that line, what could possibly prevent him from falling in with the so-called fallen women he intends to save?
There are a few things that make this picture extremely enjoyable: 1) the cast, 2) the locations, 3) the humour.
1) The filmmakers were able to snatch up a number of solid actors for this picture, some of whom were well-known thespians, and other just fine comic actors. The lot of them together made for a fine ensemble cast. Michael Palin was perfectly congenial and subtle, Maggie Smith was charming and surprisingly sexy, Trevor Howard was hilarious as the clueless and arrogant Lord Ames, and Denholm Elliott was excellent as always. One of the most notable was Michael Hordern as the Ames’ butler, who is always lost – both physically and mentally. His scenes were a RIOT. Unfortunately Phoebe Nicholls couldn’t handle the comedy and spoiled many of her exchanges with Palin; a different actress would have been preferable.
2) Mostly shot on location with a few façades complementing and completing the turn-of-the-century settings, ‘The Missionary’ is a splendor: the architecture and décor are as impressive as the mansions were massive.. How they ever managed to get permission to film in such jaw-dropping places is beyond me – ‘The Missionary’ was no doubt made on a modest budget (case-in-point: they tried to get, but couldn’t afford, Laurence Olivier), so I wonder how they pulled it off. Apparently there’s a DVD version of the film that has an audio commentary on it. I’d love to hear it and find out how they made this happen.
3) Michael Palin has always had more of a knack for subtlety than his fellow Pythons. While he was certainly capable of doing the sillier material, he was always more credible with more a finessed, natural genre and delivery. This shows in the script, which is not overtly humourous for the most part: there is no slapstick, no manic gesticulation or exaggerated facial expressions, no bodily functions, …etc.; most of the comedy lies in the situations or in the dialogues. In a gesture of generosity, almost everyone gets an amusing line, with Palin playing it straight much of the way. This may have been what drew such a fine cast together.
The most outrageous of the lot is Lord Ames, who would utter such hilariously ridiculous things as “Isabelle, who are the people I hate?”. A military man with a serious disciplinarian bent, he believes that what ails Great Britain is that “there aren’t enough people chained up”. I couldn’t help but laugh at how convinced he is that his way is best: “I once had a chap before me who’d been caught stealing from the mess. I ordered every alternate fingernail to be removed, and you know, I still get a card from him every Christmas”. I can’t imagine the great Olivier playing this part, but I’m sure it would have been something. Having said that, Howard was pitch-perfect as Ames.
He’s not alone. The arrogance of Brit colonialism is perfectly sent up when The Bishop discusses his own work in Africa with Palin’s Reverend Fortescue: “I tried to teach the rudiments of rugby football. But it wasn’t really their sort of thing. They hang on to the ball for too long. Weeks, sometimes”. Denholm Elliott makes the man so self-absorbed and so obsessed with his work and all forms of sport that he doesn’t realize just how ignorant he truly is. When he decides to ask Fortescue to save “fallen women”, he has no idea of the imposition he’s making.
‘The Missionary’ delights in taking the man of cloth out of his garbs, soiling his moral purity – at least off-screen. It puts him in difficult situations and, given his inability to stand up for himself properly, we soon find him not so much as making the wrong decisions as letting the wrong decision be made for him. However, we don’t see much of it – aside from the one time when he ends up in bed with a few of the women he’s supposed to be helping. Otherwise, it’s all mostly suggestive, with the only objectionable language coming from one of the prostitutes:
“Most o’ my boys just want company… a bit o’ cheerin’ up. I’m like a mother to ’em! Only they can’t fuck their mothers so they come ‘ere.”
Frankly, I don’t know if this motion picture would have benefited from more eye candy, given the setting, but it works fine as is. I can’t fathom Michael Palin writing and starring in a sex comedy, so this seems quite appropriate all things considered: it leaves more to the imagination and focuses primarly on what leads our protagonist from being celebrated to being admonished for his good intentions gone bad. ‘The Missionary’ is a nice little film that is naughty below the surface.
I have no doubt that it will continue to grow on me over time.
Date of viewing: September 4, 2013