Movie: The Missionary (1982)

When a movie shows prostitutes of 19th century London’s seediest neighborhoods, I imagine them marketing their wares as if they are vendors at a baseball game: “Get your hot seh-fuh-lisss heeer-yuh! HOT syphilis!”

In 1982’s The Missionary Michael Palin plays the title role, a seemingly decent man who has faithfully served the Church no matter where they send him in the world.  In the opening credits sequence, we see him happily teaching, doctoring and mingling with members of an African tribe.  Despite having seen so much of the world through his profession, he remains curiously naïve.

Perhaps this is why his next assignment upon returning to England is to start a mission in the poorest area of London, to minister to “fallen women”.  There’s a pretty funny bit where his privileged fiancée keeps asking for clarification, yet never grasps what this really means: “Are they having knee problems?  Are their legs broken?”

Not sure why these two were engaged to begin with.  He has been in Africa the past ten years, sending her endless letters and postcards the entire time.  She doesn’t seem to comprehend the sentiments expressed in those, yet she has an intricate filing system and knows the ID, date and location of each item.  This felt a bit like the jokes in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, with all the cryptically named forms everybody in it has to file.  She also is bewildered as to why there needs to be a mission in their home country: “But everyone’s English in England…”

Palin’s costar is a lusty baroness played by Maggie Smith.  Since I always think of Smith as being roughly 80 years old, it felt very strange to put the word “lusty” in that previous sentence.  And yet, she wants Palin’s holy body before she’ll convince her husband to pony up the dough for the mission.

Her husband is played by Trevor Howard, who earned a lifetime of goodwill from his performance in The Third Man, my favorite movie.  Apparently, the actor was drunk and belligerent during the production of this film, and would die only a year later.  That’s a shame, because he’s a hoot in this as a crazy old ex-army official.  When Palin tells him the mission is for the underprivileged, he barks, “Underprivileged?  Not familiar with the term!”

Denholm Elliott, excellent as always, takes Palin on a visit to the area where the mission is to be established.  He tries to introduce Palin to a prostitute and she tells him there’s no discounts for bishops.  Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band singer Neil Innes makes a cameo in this bar as a singer who takes a flying chair to the face, which made me laugh embarrassingly hard.

Once the mission is established, the fallen women fall hard for the missionary.  Palin finds himself balancing the needs of his lusty wards, his frustrated fiancée, his sponsor and the Church. 

This is a movie that is more clever than it is funny, and it may not be for everybody.  In fact, I’m not entirely sure who it is for, but I just happened to enjoy it.

I enjoyed some sequences which intentionally took a long time to play out, most notably a scene where Michael Horden as a senile butler leads Palin all through a mansion without ever seeming to find their destination.  This reminded me of a similar scene in Jacques Tati’s Playtime in which we watch his Hulot character walk down a very long hallway before tripping at the end of it.

Given how dry most of the humor is in this picture, it was jarring to have occasional moments of farce, such as a brief shot of runners on a beach as accompanied by the Chariots of Fire theme played on bagpipes. 

One thing that is consistent throughout is gorgeous cinematography.  Many of the shots look like paintings from that era come to life. 

Those who are interested, and own a region-free player, are encouraged to seek out the Powerhouse/Indicator region B blu-ray.  It was a great many special features, including extensive interviews with Palin and Smith.

This film was produced by Handmade Films, the company founded by George Harrison originally to fund Monty Python’s Life of Brian.  As the man himself once put it, all he wanted to do was see the picture, so he bought the most expense movie ticket of all time.  The Missionary fits in well in their catalog of charmingly offbeat pictures.

Dir: Richard Loncraine

Starring: Michael Palin, Maggie Smith

Watched on Powerhouse/Indicator blu-ray (region B)