Michael Palin, of Flying Circus fame, never takes a staunch position in "The Missionary" either as its screenwriter or its star. His acting is bland; his screenplay is sporadic and unresolved. There's no fire, no brimstone.
While "The Missionary" -- part romance, mystery, comedy and travelogue -- certainly is one of the most scenic films to come along since "Ryan's Daughter," flimsy structure can't be covered over with postcard cinematography and romantic, golden lighting. It's visual debauchery.
Early, dusty scenes in Kenya are delightful with the Edwardian Rev. Charles Fortescue (Palin) teaching young blacks about the signing of the Magna Carta. But they're over quickly, for he is returning to England to marry his childhood sweetheart (Phoebe Nicholls) after 10 years. Nicholls, who played Cordelia in "Brideshead Revisited," is a perfect little prig. Her hobby is filing and she thinks fallen women are ladies who've hurt their knees. She's an able actress, but her squeaky little character isn't the least bit appealing.
Costar Maggie Smith, as the lecherous Lady Ames, is now past her prime, but Fortescue allows himself to be seduced to gain funding for his new home for London prostitutes. Smith, elegant and well- costumed, meanwhile is planning to murder Lord Ames, a crusty fusspot played by Trevor Howard (one of the film's few blessings), along with Michael Hordern as the daft butler Slatterthwaite. Hordern repeats the same gag -- losing his way in the Ames' labyrinthine country mansion -- a dozen times and still gets laughter.
Palin tries with Pythonian physicality; it doesn't work. Then he plays the reluctant romantic as he unfrocks the lithe, little tramps in his sexually liberated mission. There are amusing lines that call for a titter, and a few worth a guffaw, usually Lord Ames'. But overall, "The Missionary" is wholly unsatisfying. There are unpardonable pratfalls and scenes that don't advance the story. The locales shift from England to Scotland, for no other reason than to show off the mountains in the Highlands. And sure, it's funny when the theme from "Chariots of Fire" becomes part of the score as a group of Victorian joggers run by a lake, but what's it doing in a film about 1906? Is nothing sacred? THE MISSIONARY -- At the AMC Carrollton, AMC Skyline, Aspen Hill, Inner Circle, Loehmann's Plaza, NTI White Flint, Roth's Tysons Corner and Springfield Mall.