Thursday, January 21, 2021

Brit Month suffers a near-mortal blow: Death at a Funeral

Death at a Funeral

We’ve dealt with originals and remakes before here at Movie Churches. One of the earliest (and still most popular) of our posts featured both The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and its remake The Preacher’s Wife (1996). Conversely, we used two posts for the two versions of Footloose (the 1984 version during ‘80’s Month and the 2011 version during Rebellious Teens Month.) Still, it is rather awkward to be getting to the original version of Death at a Funeral (the remake was featured last year in Comedy Month) this week in Brit Month.

The films are amazingly similar, screenplays by the same writer (Dean Craig) and filmed just three years apart. But watching the original film, I realized I had misread a joke and wrote with complete obliviousness when I wrote about it in the remake. I’ll save that embarrassing admission for the end of this post.

The original version was directed by Frank Oz (Yoda himself) and was set in England (obviously -- this is Brit month, after all). Matthew MacFayden (Daniel) stars as the son of the subject of the funeral. Keeley Hawes (Jane) plays Daniel’s wife and Rupert Graves (Robert) his brother. Two actors in this British film would return for the American remake as the same characters: Alan Tudyk (Simon) as the guest who accidentally consumes hallucinogenics and disrupts the funeral and Peter Dinklage (Peter) as the secret lover of the deceased who appears at the funeral to blackmail the family.

But what matters here, of course, is the relatively minor role played by Thomas Wheatley as the Anglican Priest, the Reverend Davidson. We first see the minister as he approaches the sons of the deceased and one of them uses the Lord’s name in vain. The priest quite obviously hears this and pretends not to have heard. (This is a set-up for a joke later in the film. When the priest is concerned about being late, he looks at his watch and loudly exclaims, “Christ!” This will certainly be a mark against when the Movie Church Steeple Rating is issued.)

He is quite impressed to be meeting Robert (a best-selling author) and lets him know he has read several of his novels. He asks Robert if he will be doing the eulogy and when the response is that Daniel will be presenting the eulogy, the priest does not do well at masking his disappointment.

The priest says, “Daniel, I really think we should start calling everyone in. Really, I’m only supposed to be here until 3.” (Maybe it’s just me, but a funeral or memorial really is a time when a clergyperson should make it clear they will be available as long as the family needs.)

A scene played out in both films is when one of Daniel and Robert’s cousin has to distract the priest while a corpse is being moved about. Cousin Howard (Andy Nyman) attempts to talk theology with the priest, “How is God today? God is a funny one isn’t He?” The priest is trying to make an important phone call, so he tries to move past Howard.

Howard tries another approach, “I’d like to become a priest because I’ve watched you today and you are amazing…” (Any priest who would fall for that line of flattery probably be better off in another line of work.) 

“I’m delighted to hear that,” the priest responds.

Howard then asks, “On Sundays, is it true the wine is sweeter, or not?”

“Listen,” the priest says, “We’ll deal with this later on. I need to get to a phone.” (Some of us remember the days when we would have to find phones.)

Howard tries one last ploy, “I have a confession to make, I have thoughts about a pen up me bum.” This certainly drives the priest along.

I’ve put this off long enough. When I wrote about the remake of Death at a Funeral, I wrote that it would be highly unlikely that a priest would use the story of David and Jonathan in a funeral service, that passages such as Psalm 23 or John 11 would be more likely. But the passage is used as a set-up for the revelation that the deceased was gay. In my defense, in the American remake, it seems that the priest doesn’t seem to have known the deceased and so using that story from Scripture is a bizarre choice.

The joke is set up much better in the original film, as the priest introduces the passage in this way, “Family and friends, I’d like to start with a favorite passage of Edward’s.” (It makes much more sense that the passage was the choice of deceased rather than the priest’s.) “It’s from the King James Bible.” (As if the story isn’t found in other translations.) “It’s the First Book of Samuel, chapter 18. ‘Then Jonathan and David made a covenant because he loved him as his own soul. And it came to pass the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David. And Jonathan stripped himself of his robe, and gave it to David and his garments and even to his sword and bow and even to his girdle.’”

I didn’t get the joke the first time around, but I do think Rev. Davidson should have figured this out as well. One of the many reasons the priest earns only Two of Four Movie Church Steeples.

(One final item that will be of interest to perhaps no one. The film concludes with the song “Love Our Time Today" written by Murray Gold. To me, the song sounded an awful lot like the song “Travel Hopefully” by Andrew Lloyd Webber from the musical By Jeeves. Probably the only one interested in this is Webber himself. If you win your suit, Sir Andrew, may I have a percentage?)

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