Color, 1982, 86 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by Richard Loncraine
Starring Michael Palin, Maggie Smith, Trevor Howard, Denholm Elliott, Michael Hordern, Graham Crowden, David Suchet
Indicator (UK RB HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), Image Entertainment, MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Umbrella Entertainment (DVD) (Australia R4 PAL), Anchor Bay (DVD) (UK R2 PAL)
For a little while, the British indie HandMade Films (co-founded by George Harrison) was a major force on the movie scene around the turn of the ‘80s with classics like Time Bandits, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, The Long Good Friday, and Mona Lisa. Though a bit lesser known, 1982’s The Missionary is a great representative of the HandMade approach with its oddball sense of humor, amazing cast, and Python connection via star Michael Palin, paired up here with the impeccable Maggie Smith (a teaming repeated two years later with HandMade’s A Private Function).
In the early 1900s, Reverend Charles Fortescue (Palin) returns to London from Africa and prepares for his upcoming marriage to a clergyman’s daughter. However, his plans are thrown into disarray when the Bishop (Elliott) assigns him to minister to the prostitutes frequenting the areas around the London docks. Charles seeks financial aid from the difficult Lord Henry Ames (Howard) but finds a more willing patron in his wife, Isabel (Smith); however, his latest assignment will prove to take a higher toll on his body and spirit than he could have possibly expected.
Essentially a sly dirty joke spread out over an entire feature with a style not unlike Palin's short-lived series Ripping Yarns, The Missionary is completely sold by its game roster of talent including a terrific role for the great character actor Michael Hordern as the Ames' butler. It's also given a great deal of polish by director Richard Loncraine, who helmed the wonderfully perverse big screen version of Brimstone and Treacle the same year (where the heck is that Blu-ray?), complete with lavish scope photography and immaculate period detail including a bit of on-location African footage. (It's also worth noting that Loncraine made his two '82 films between The Haunting of Julia and Bellman and True, which is quite a streak.) The film isn't fall-down hilarious, nor is it intended to be; instead it's more wry and just a bit naughty, a tough formula to pull off and an even tougher one to sell to mainstream audiences. Fortunately Palin and company prove up to the task, and the result is a minor gem that has continued to endure for decades.
Unfortunately this film has had an incredibly sorry home video history for the most part with all of its DVD incarnations suffering from some brutal pan and scan cropping. Fortunately that situation was eventually rectified in 2019 with the U.K. Blu-ray from Indicator, which marks the first properly framed scope release anywhere in the world (and comes approved by Loncraine and cinematographer Peter Hannan). The difference is massive as the compositions finally have room to breathe, with characters situated at opposite ends of the frame finally appearing together at the same time. Much of the film has a somewhat soft, powdery appearance, but the increase in detail makes that approach look far more pleasing with natural film grain in evidence. The LPCM English mono track sounds excellent given the subdued nature of the original mix, with optional English SDH subtitles provided. A lively audio commentary with Palin is ported over from the 2002 Anchor Bay DVD, and it's still a great listen as he chats about mounting the film after essentially being given carte blanche by HandMade after participating in Time Bandits. However, you also get an embarrassment of new riches here starting off with a new audio commentary with Loncraine moderated by Sam Dunn. It's a very welcome new addition, both candid and affectionate as they chat in detail about the production including the rationale behind a few of the more oddball choices, the conventions of the period, the things he would do differently now, and his memories of the cast and crew. "Compulsively Entertaining" (37m35s) is a terrific new piece featuring separate interviews with Palin and Smith looking back on the production including the genesis of the story, the delight of doing a British period film, Loncraine's boundless energy, the casting process, and the importance of the art direction on creating the proper comic mood. "A Good Collar" (7m56s) is a short but sweet chat with costume designer Shuna Harwood about the resourcefulness required to come up with the proper clothing of the era on a limited budget, while "A Very British Sound" (7m33s) features composer and record producer Mike Moran explaining how his own HandMade connection led to the assignment of providing the sparse, period appropriate score for this feature. Then makeup artist Ken Lintott appears in "Playing the Part" (3m42s) to share his own quick, fond memories of the cheerful set (complete with bawdy singing on the set), followed by "Snapshots of Sound (10m29s) with sound recordist Tony Jackson noting the contrast between mounting the British and African sequences including the challenge of recording a hymn on location. Finally comedian, musician and writer Rob Deering offers his own take on the film in "A Stiff Old Fashioned" (22m27s) as part of the tradition of British comedy and early '80s independent hits that still have an impact today. Also included are a pair of deleted scenes (6m25s) uncovered during the film's restoration (silent but augmented with subtitles pulled from the screenplay), followed by the theatrical trailer and a gallery of 22 stills and promotional items. As usual the limited edition is a luxury item in itself complete with a 40-page booklet featuring excerpts from Robert Sellers’ Very Naughty Boys: The Amazing True Story of HandMade Films and Palin’s Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980–88, an additional Palin essay, sample critical reactions from the original release, and film credits.
Reviewed on September 7, 2019.