Two orphaned brothers turned radical Christian hitmen venture to rural Ilkley under the instruction of Father Enoch. Their mission: assassinate Professor Bill Huxley, famed atheist writer.
If I awarded a Film Of The Deity, Say Your Prayers would be it. It’s well worth a watch anyway, and even more so if entry to Heaven is based not on a simple believer / non-believer binary but a points-based system. Stick this in the “religious movies watched” column and hope St Peter hasn’t read the synopsis – as two unprofessional Christian terrorists try to take out professional atheist Professor Bill Huxley. Yes, this is a battle between the righteous and the self-righteous, and there can be only one whiner, I mean winner.
Say Your Prayers lightly but persistently skewers religious fundamentalism, literary festivals and, via that TV and movie stalwart the no-nonsense copper, the police.
I may have given this three stars, but that’s a good, solid three stars (cameos from Cbeebies stalwarts, Big Questions tackled with humour and quirkiness) rather than a sorrowful, wasted opportunity three stars (cameos from A-listers who have one line yet take up most of the poster, a story that ponderously questions something truly banal at a cost of $50 million).
The cameo in Say Your Prayers is Roger Allam, known to grateful parents everywhere as the narrator from Sarah and Duck, though here playing Huxley. (Once you have small children the previous filmography of any CBeebies alumnus fades to nothing, no matter how illustrious. See also Mark Rylance, Flop in CBeebies’ Bing.)
Huxley is appearing at Ilkley Literature Festival, and his broadsheet-friendly brand of atheism has resulted in both a sell-out talk and threats to his life.
By rights he should be dead already, had not bungling brothers Vic (Tom Brooke) and Tim (Harry Melling) accidentally thrown the wrong man off a Yorkshire crag in a case of mistaken identity. Truly the Lord works in erroneous ways.
Vic, the more intelligent and more violent brother, is determined they will fulfil their task at Huxley’s upcoming festival talk, spurred on by their mild-mannered but brimstone-heavy father (and Father) Enoch, who adopted Tim and Vic as children and has been indoctrinating them ever since.
For Vic, religious righteousness is a channel for his rage, as he threatens a stranger outside a pub for blaspheming; and in a story as old as religion itself, masturbates to a cam-girl while muttering “I’m a naughty little boy”.
After them is sweary Detective Inspector Brough (a glorious Anna Maxwell Martin), who takes no prisoners when she’s trying to take prisoners. “We’ve got something ma’am!” calls down one of her officers when they’re on the crag one dark stormy night, looking for clues into the man’s death. “Bring it down Frank, I’m not a fucking Sherpa!” is her reply.
Meanwhile festival stalwart Imelda (Vinette Robinson) becomes torn between Huxley and the sweet (apart from the fact he’s a murderer) and guileless Tim.
There’s a consistent determination to skewer expectations, sometimes directly and sometimes via characters an audience probably wouldn’t want to think they identified with. As Huxley says, when faced with a gun: “Christians send letters, they don’t jihad!”
It’s a gentle but persistent prodding rather than piercing satire. Writers Harry Michell (who also directed) and Jamie Fraser also demonstrate how terrorist leaders share a reluctance to do the work themselves; the foot soldiers take the risks while their instructors hide in the shadows. “Martyrdom is a young man’s game,” says Enoch (Derek Jacobi) without irony.
A small-scale film about a big subject, there’s plenty of wit, quirk and twists on the expected to keep it watchable throughout its 85 minute runtime; though that humour is undercut with pathos. Poor Tim, set on this path as a child, finally works out how he ended up here, but doesn’t have the wit to work out how to escape.
The settings are the stone streets of Ilkley and the drab maroon and cream of twin-bedded hotel rooms augmented with fake flower arrangements. A race to stop a murder is thwarted by stubborn cyclists riding three-abreast on a country road; it all looks a bit dismal until Huxley gives his talk to his rapt parishioners, in a timelessly beautiful wood-panelled room with Security on the doors.
And in scene after scene, as the raggedly murder plans unravel further, and literati imported from London swap well-rehearsed barbs and banalities, in the background stands a smartly-dressed Yorkshire male voice choir, note-perfect as they give voice to traditional songs and hymns.
This is the second film in two weeks with Melling playing a religious obsessive, following on from his compelling turn as Rev Laferty in the addictive if overwrought The Devil All The Time. He’s just as good here as the childlike Tim, an innocent abroad even though he’s guilty as hell. At times Melling is so moving it’s hard to laugh at the ridiculous situations he’s in, because Tim really has no way out.
Allam is wondrously pompous as Huxley: odious, self-congratulatory and probably right. Despite his claim to be taking out religions, on a personal level Huxley punches down and expects his targets to stoically accept his mockery. But free speech is for everyone, obnoxious men like Huxley and religious fundamentalists, otherwise it’s not free.
The low-key ending shows how the leaders of different groups (even if self-appointed) will still close ranks together to maintain the status quo – however much they claim they want to tear it down.
Read my very spoilery article about the film – Say Your Prayers: blessed are the filmmakers.
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