In The Missionary The Reverend Charles Fortesque (MICHAEL PALIN) has been spreading the word in Africa these ten years. But the new century — the 20th — presents concerns nearer home and the Bishop of London (DENHOLM ELLIOTT) requires a new broom in the East End. Fortesque must raise funds and Lady Ames (MAGGIE SMITH) can help, provided he understands the quid pro quo . Fortesque, whose innocence may be his strongest card, gradually learns that raising fallen women sometimes requires that he too rises to the occasion.
The quibble on the phrase ‘missionary position’ is not the whole of this Palin (and, some would argue, pallid) comedy, nor is the need, urgent in the early 1980s, to escape the constraints of Monty Python expectations. Palin is sensitive to comic tradition and much of the craft displayed here would not disgrace the Ealing Studio (though the frankness would). Moreover, that self-styled Cockney barrow-boy of a director, RICHARD LONCRAINE, is as clever a foil to Palin’s careful tastefulness as he is to Ian McKellen’s dogged self-regard in Richard III and Dennis Potter’s manipulative intellect in Brimstone and Treacle.
In the end, though, the unalloyed pleasures are the obvious ones: the unashamed scene-stealing by Smith’s top-drawer tramp, Elliott’s energetic bishop and MICHAEL HORDERN’s other-worldly butler. For the most part, the film is a well-bred, rather safe comedy, heavily dependent on Palin’s well-attested winsomeness.
Michael Palin as The Reverend Charles Fortescue
Maggie Smith as Lady Isabel Ames
Trevor Howard as Lord Henry Ames
Denholm Elliott as The Bishop
Michael Hordern as Slatterthwaite / Narrator
Graham Crowden as The Reverend Fitzbanks
David Suchet as Corbett
Phoebe Nicholls as Deborah Fitzbanks
Tricia George as Ada
Valerie Whittington as Emmeline
Roland Culver as Lord Fermleigh
Rosamund Greenwood as Lady Fermleigh
Timothy Spall as Parswell
Neil Innes as Singer in Gin Palace
John Barrett as Old Man outside Hotel
Director: Richard Loncraine
Writer: Michael Palin
Year of Release: 1982
Duration: 90 minutes