by Jenny Heaton
Religious extremism isn’t an easy topic to make light of. One wrong step, and it can quickly become distasteful and mean-spirited. Films like Four Lions and Team America: World Police certainly do often cross the line into tasteless, but they balance out the darkness by being overblown, incisively witty, and absolutely absurd. Say Your Prayers certainly aspires to say something meaningful about blind faith and intolerance but, much like its protagonist, it wavers far too much on exactly how to convey it.
The film’s premise is simple and ripe with potential: two ill-prepared Catholic extremists are tasked with assassinating a famous atheist author whilst at a Yorkshire book festival. Unfortunately, after a strong cold open that introduces us to brothers Tim (Harry Melling) and Vic (Tom Brooke), the pacing slows down to the point where it feels like it’s just killing time before the finale as much as our main characters are. It gets across the gist of what it has to say early on, demonstrating both the moral contradictions of religious violence and the pompous contempt of sceptic intellectuals, and then mostly just rephrases them for the rest of its brief runtime.
On an analytical level it certainly understands its subject matter, but the problem is that it doesn’t have anything particularly unique or funny to say about it. It doesn’t swing for the fences hard enough, maintaining a dry, down-to-earth tone that leaves it stranded between comedy and drama. Sightseers is the easiest comparison point for what Say Your Prayers is going for, but where that film’s deadpan approach served to contrast the shockingly dark horror elements, here the lines between what’s funny and what’s serious are nowhere near as stark.
What helps carry the film across the finish line is its strong performances. Harry Melling is a simple-minded but likeable lead as Tim, bringing a naivety and heart to a story filled with depraved and mean-spirited characters. His arc is telegraphed way too early on and lacks definition, but the skeleton of it is a compelling redemption arc and Melling sells it with a subtlety much of the rest of the cast lacks. Tom Brooke’s Vic gets less focus but has a lot of potential, contrasting his devout Christianity with his violent temper to both dramatic and comedic effect; the way he seriously compares this quiet Yorkshire town to Sodom says all you need to know about his character.
Vinette Robinson is likable as festival organiser Imelda but her character’s actions are a bit inexplicable, taking a liking to the clearly troubled Tim for other reason than “she’s nice, and the plot says so”, whilst Derek Jacobi feels a bit wasted as the domineering Father Enoch. Anna Maxwell Martin is funny in spots with her creative vulgarity as DCI Brough, but there’s no real complexity to her and she just comes off as mean for mean’s sake, contrasted ably by her more well-adjusted partner Hodge (Flora Spencer-Longhurst). However, the film’s real saving grace is Roger Allam as the controversial polemicist John Huxley. A biting amalgamation of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and your least-favourite university professor, Allam hits the nail on the head of the character to deliver a delightfully arrogant performance. The film’s most effective scene, where Huxley makes a snide mockery of Tim’s faith whilst they glare at each other in contempt, deserves to be in a much better movie.
Say Your Prayers is far from without merit, but in execution it fumbles the ball with an admittedly difficult subject matter. An uneven, unfocused hodgepodge of Chris Morris and Ben Wheatley, it either can’t decide whether to play its commentary as serious or farcical, or is simply too afraid to step into the dark territory it needs to thrive.
Say Your Prayers is out 28th September