British indie comedy Say Your Prayers locates itself comfortably in the tradition of inept Brits making a mess of rural idylls – in this case, violently.
The idyll here is the rugged landscape of West Yorkshire. The blokes in question are Tim (Harry Melling), permanently ensconced in a Tibetan earflap, and Vic (Tom Brooke), hatchet-faced and angry.
Ostensibly brothers, or at least raised as such, they have been dispatched to Ilkley to assassinate famed atheist and skeptic Professor Huxley (Roger Allam), who is scheduled to appear at the local literary festival. Tim and Harry, you see, are Christians, men of faith, and they don’t like people laughing at them.
From its premise – In Bruges meets Four Lions – to its rustic poster – like a slightly more crowded Withnail & I or perhaps a less peripatetic Sightseers – Harry Michell’s latest seems to be custom-made for a cult following. It’s difficult, though to make a cult movie to measure and Say Your Prayers is most interesting in how it parallels, not mimics, its forebears.
Tim is a simple soul, played by Melling with a certain awkward, furrowed intensity – always staring off into the middle distance in consternation. All he really wants is to go for a bit of a wander. Vic, meanwhile, lanky and uptight, always seem to be spoiling for a fight. He gets so angry when Huxley appears on the telly, he has to scream into a pillow.
With their wrongful assassination of an unfortunate lookalike in the film’s opening sequence already drawing the attention of the local constabulary – Anna Maxwell Martin’s obnoxious DCI Brough plays like a reject from Hot Fuzz – their dispatcher, Father Enoch (Derek Jacobi), is already on his way to set them right. Till then, Tim can spend time with Imelda (Vinette Robinson), a festival organizer who inexplicably takes a shine to him, and Vic can get into fights in pub carparks.
Say Your Prayers has the feel of a well-executed film-school script – this coming from someone who, during his Screenwriting MA, attempted a project of similar style, if certainly not quality. That Imelda is introduced during a seminar on storytelling, more particularly one archetypes about heroes and villains, seems particularly on-the-nose in this regard. The presence of Huxley as Richard Dawkins-like figure, no longer exactly a topical figure, suggests the film may have been in gestation for a while.
That said, there are some treats to be gathered; like, at particularly tense junctures, the appearance of a red-blazered elderly male voice choir performing a blaring rendition of “Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron” – the folk horror equivalent of the calypso band from Paddington.
Matthew Steer’s soft-bellied festival chief gets a nice line in dry self-deprecation (“I’ve seen Jaws, Louise. Don’t make me the Mayor.”),
Flora Spencer-Longhurst makes the most of a thankless task as Brough’s unassuming second-in-command, and Derek Jacobi, in essentially the Ralph Fiennes role from In Bruges, turns chillingly from kindly, if slightly sinister, reverend to vengeful, red-faced imp.
Michell’s script calls out the insanity of religious fundamentalists, but also the hypocrisy of moderates; the smug, intelligent master debaters who perpetuate the cycle for their own benefit. Say Your Prayers has a half-formed message about the dangers of conviction. I just wish it had more faith in its own to set it apart
Say Your Prayers is available now to rent or buy.