Note: this is spoilery, though I can’t help you with the biggest question of all – is there a God? And if so where does She buy her bras? by the way.)
Say Your Prayers (my review is here) is small-scale and very self-contained, though it’s remarkably effective. Like a doorstep proselytiser you thought you’d got rid if, before finding yourself reading their pamphlet when chucking it in the recycling bin, it hasn’t let go of me since I saw it.
It looks like a comedy about religious extremism, and the clash of rights – as prominent atheist Professor Huxley attracts the wrath of radicalised Church of England brothers, Tim and Vic.
Tim, who has been kept in a cult-like grip by his brother and his adoptive father, Enoch, gradually realises there is more to life than a potentially glorious martyr’s death, but he never loses sight of why he’s trying to murder Huxley.
It’s not a punishment; Tim thinks, right to the end, that he’s doing Professor Huxley a favour, literally saving his life.
It’s as if he and Huxley are fighting entirely different battles, even as they roll on the floor fighting at the end, each trying to shoot the other. (Spoiler: neither of them manages it, though DCI Brough manages to shoot and kill Tim while Vic, distraught, watches.)
Considering how often in films motivation is either murky or literally unbelievable, it’s quite refreshing to have such a straightforward reason for murder, even if Tim’s reasoning is horribly misguided.
Say Your Prayers doesn’t have the kind of burning satire of Four Lions, a previous film about bungling would-be religious terrorists, and its humour is often broad; but it’s still great fun and surprisingly moving. I even felt sorry for Vic.
It works because the issue it tackles – religious extremism – is kept simple and contained, and because it has a highly skilled cast who can make the movie sing.
We don’t see the Church which this family of radicalised Christians has walked away from. We also don’t know why Enoch is like he is, though my assumption is that he was always a psychopath in search of a reason to kill people.
There are issues of class at play (Huxley is a middle class Londoner, enjoying mocking plebs from the provinces so dim they believe in a god; Tim and Vic are working class boys with few prospects beyond potential martyrdom if it all goes wrong) but the family are like a sealed unit without outside influences. It’s only when Tim starts venturing out into the world (well, Ilkley high street) that he starts to question what he’s doing.
Pushing the absurdities as far as they can, the excellent cast still make the premise (a northern vicar masterminding the murder of a prominent intellectual in Ilkley) seem entirely plausible. Anna Maxwell Martin’s foul-mouthed cop DCI Brough is such a success mainly because Maxwell Martin is so adept at keeping Brough’s awfulness on the right side of realism – especially her racist assumptions that she doesn’t even acknowledge, and which later lead her to target the wrong people.
Roger Allam’s Professor Huxley is mean-spirited and taunting, but again very real (I’ve met many Professor Huxleys).
Keeping it small-scale and clear-cut means we don’t get the clouding of the waters that emerge in real-life clashes between belief and free speech and allow people to cast aside their liberal principles for spurious reasons. It’s not a complex film – it’s not only nice people who should have the right to skewer sacred, unprovable beliefs and not get shot – but it is thoughtful (and funny).
We end up rooting for Tim despite his murderous actions. (In a case of mistaken identity, he helps kill the wrong man in the first few minutes of the film.) It’s upsetting watching him struggle with the bigger world he’s found himself in versus the one track murder route he’s been on, or watching him crumble as Huxley fires prepared questions at him about obscure bible verses during a festival drinks party.
But Vic’s story is just as sad. For Vic religion gives him a purpose, channels his rage and also justifies it.
Imelda is the most Christian of all of them, befriending Tim even though he’s quite odd, and she’s the only person who doesn’t use him. She still abandons him at the end though, a betrayal of sorts (how very New Testament!). After he’s been shot by DCI Brough, Imelda runs not to him, dying on the ancient rug, but to her on-off boyfriend Huxley, who has suffered only a bloody nose in the altercation.
The film doesn’t end with Tim’s death. Instead we see a current affairs chat show some weeks later. Huxley and Enoch are sitting on the sofa, two ageing men who fundamentally disagree, but are coming together to smooth things over and tie up loose ends.
Huxley may not know that Enoch was the power behind those boys, but he’s still happy to work with an enemy to maintain the status quo. It’s a very downbeat ending, though an accurate one.
That said, the film is actually often very funny, particularly Brough, brought up short by her own prejudices: her assumption that two Asian men in Huxley’s literary festival audience must be the threat, and that white, British Christians are about as radical as a pair of slippers. Hasn’t she read any history?
Say Your Prayers is available on demand in the UK from:
Plus Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Sky Store and Rakuten TV. My review of Say Your Prayers is here.