'Say Your Prayers': Film Review

Tim (Harry Melling) in Say Your Prayers
Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures
Cheekily irreverent.
4/2/2021

Harry Melling plays one of a pair of Christian radical siblings plotting to assassinate an anti-religion activist in Harry Michell's dark comedy.

It takes expert stylistic precision to successfully craft a dark comedy about religious fanatics endeavoring to assassinate a celebrated atheist. Filmmaker Harry Michell doesn't quite stick the landing in his sophomore feature, aiming for a complex mixture of comic irreverence and sensitive character study. But he does earn points for creative ambition, and Say Your Prayers, benefiting from a terrific ensemble, has enough entertainingly startling moments to mark its filmmaker as capable of bigger and better things.

The story is set in the town of Ilkley in the Yorkshire region of England, where Vic (Tom Brooks) and his younger brother Tim (Harry Melling, who played Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter film series) have arrived to fulfill their mission of killing celebrated anti-religion activist John Huxley (Roger Allam), author of the deliciously titled God Awful, during his speaking appearance at a local literary festival.

The siblings' ineptitude as would-be Christian jihadists becomes evident in the opening scene, when they accidentally kill the wrong man simply because he bears a physical resemblance to their target. The film's cheeky style becomes evident as well, via the appearance of a red-jacketed elderly male choir who make the first of several incongruous onscreen appearances as a cinematic Greek chorus. (It's a fun idea, although Icelandic filmmaker Benedikt Erlingsson got there first with his acclaimed 2018 comedy Woman at War, which utilized a similar stylistic device.)

Complications, needless to say, ensue. Tim becomes smitten with the charming Imelda (Vinette Robinson), who, we eventually learn, has been carrying on a long-running affair with Huxley. Meanwhile, a hard-charging detective (Anna Maxwell Martin, leaning into her character's profane belligerence with enjoyable gusto) investigates the murder and becomes concerned that the impending festival could provide the opportunity for more bloodshed. Her words of warning to the festival's director (a very funny Matthew Steer), who refuses to shut it down, provide one of the film's more amusing moments: "I've seen Jaws. Don't turn me into the mayor," he tells her.

The arrival of the priest, Father Enoch (Derek Jacobi), who adopted Vic and Tom when they were orphaned as young children, provides further conflict. Having programmed them into fulfilling his murderous plans to eliminate the philosophical competition, he's more than a little upset that their bungling may interfere with his plans.

Director/co-writer Michell (I haven't seen his previous feature, Chubby Funny, but simply from the title, I want to), attempting a tricky balancing act ranging from comic absurdism to social satire to thriller mechanics, doesn't fully succeed on any level. However, the film, which never feels either as realistic or as outlandish as it might been, proves successful in such quietly well-observed moments as when Tim, who's come to doubt the righteousness of his mission, first meets Huxley (who resembles a cross between Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens). At first genial and polite, Huxley soon reveals his true stripes when he viciously mocks the young man for his religious beliefs, earning loud guffaws from his compatriots.

The complicated relationship between the two siblings is also well drawn in such moments as when Tim accidentally interrupts Vic's vigorous masturbatory session while on his computer. When the embarrassed Vic rushes out of the room, Tim awkwardly attempts to rectify the situation by making small talk with the uninterested online sex worker.

Although Brooke does an excellent job of conveying his violent character's complexities, it's Melling, recently seen in Netflix's The Queen's Gambit, who gives the film its emotional weight with his sensitive portrayal of the self-doubting Tim. And ever-reliable veterans Allam and Jacobi are typically impeccable, especially in the film's arch coda demonstrating that religion, as well as politics, makes strange bedfellows.

Available in theaters and VOD
Production companies: Screen Yorkshire, Ivy Gate Films, Guinea Pig, Aimimage Productions, Independent, Star Cross Entertainment, Featuristic Films, Umedia
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Harry Melling, Tom Brooke, Derek Jacobi, Roger Allam, Anna Maxwell Martin, Vinette Robinson, Flora Spencer
Director: Harry Michell
Screenwriters: Harry Michell, Jamie Fraser
Producer: Helen Simmons
Executive producers: Kevin Loader, Farah Abushwesha, Andy Brunskill, Matthew James Wilkinson, Hugo Heppell, Roger Le Tissier, Frances Le Tissier, Andrew Orr, Bastien Sirodot, Adrian Politowski, Julien Loeffler, Fabrice Smadja, Charles Emerson, David Leigh, Jack Meeus, Amon Z Mian Mahmud, Bend Bond, Harry Michell
Director of photography: Sverre Sordal
Production designer: Debbie Burton
Editors: Dylan Holmes Williams, Xanna Ward Dixon
Composer: Arran Price
Costume designer: David Wolfe
Casting: Dan Hubbard

89 minutes