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Missionary, The (1981)

Courtesy of HandMade plc

Main image of Missionary, The (1981)
35mm, colour, 86 mins
DirectorRichard Loncraine
Production CompanyHandmade Films
ProducersNeville C. Thompson
 Michael Palin
ScreenplayMichael Palin
PhotographyPeter Hannan
MusicMike Moran

Cast: Michael Palin (The Reverend Charles Fortescue); Maggie Smith (Lady Ames); Trevor Howard (Lord Ames); Denholm Elliott (Bishop of London); Graham Crowden (Reverend Fitzbanks); David Suchet (Corbett); Michael Hordern (Slatterthwaite); Phoebe Nicholls (Deborah Fitzbanks)

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Naïve clergyman Charles Fortescue is ordered by the Bishop of London to apply his experience as a missionary to the "fallen women" of London's East End.

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The third HandMade Films production to showcase the work of a member of the Monty Python team, The Missionary differed sharply from the more fantastical Life of Brian (d. Terry Jones, 1979) and Time Bandits (d. Terry Gilliam, 1981). Written by and starring Michael Palin, this gentle, understated film was most clearly derived from Ripping Yarns (BBC, tx. 1976-79), the series that he created with Terry Jones that paid tribute to the Boy's Own papers of yesteryear.

Parts of The Missionary are as farcical as that (the punishment-obsessed Lord Ames seems to be developed directly from a character in Ripping Yarns' 'Murder at Moorstones Manor', BBC, tx. 11/10/1977), but Palin also seems to be attempting a more thoughtful reflection on sexual hypocrisy in Edwardian London - the lecture given by one of the prostitutes to her well-meaning would-be saviour is played entirely straight, as are the opening scenes of missionary work in Africa. Moving more decisively in either direction might have worked well, but the film has an overall uncertainty of tone that is never quite resolved.

Palin himself plays the title role, as the idealistic but naïve clergyman Charles Fortescue, and the film is on firmest ground when it traces his progress through the fleshpots of the East End, after being assigned to rescue "fallen women" by the sports-mad Bishop of London (Denholm Elliott). But neither of his romantic relationships, firstly with the catalogue-obsessed Deborah (Phoebe Nicholls) and then with the sex-starved Lady Ames (Maggie Smith) rings especially true, largely because the characters are badly underwritten. The frantic climax, in which Fortescue pursues Lady Ames to her Scottish retreat, is crammed with last-minute revelations, denouements and assassination attempts, all of which lack their intended impact because they carry little emotional weight.

What saves the film are the performances of a top-drawer cast, with a notable number of screen veterans. In addition to Elliott and Smith, the roll call includes Michael Hordern as the scene-stealingly absent-minded butler Slatterthwaite, Trevor Howard, Graham Crowden and, in a brief cameo, Roland Culver as a potential benefactor, who dies partway through Fortescue's pitch for funding. (There's also an early appearance by a then virtually unknown Timothy Spall). Director Richard Loncraine and his team kept up the early HandMade tradition of high production values on a tight budget, and the result is one of the best-looking British films of its era.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The mission (5:03)
2. Among the fallen (4:32)
3. Lady Ames' plan (2:19)
Production stills
Bux, Ishaq (1917-2000)
Crowden, Graham (1922-2010)
Culver, Roland (1900-1984)
Elliott, Denholm (1922-1992)
Hordern, Sir Michael (1911-1995)
Howard, Trevor (1913-1988)
Leland, David (1947-)
Palin, Michael (1943-)
Smith, Maggie (1934-)
Spall, Timothy (1957-)
HandMade Films