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Film Report: Heavens Above

Your Humble Blogger happened across a terrific movie recently: Heavens Above. It’s a British film from 1963, starring Peter Sellers in one of his comic-actor roles rather than his clown roles, and he’s flat-out terrific in it. It’s easy to forget that he was a skilled comic actor, in addition to being a marvelous clown, because he is remembered now mostly for Clouseau and perhaps The Goons. And, I suppose Being There, which is one of the comic-actor roles, but by that point I think people thought of it as an exception to his usual style. Early in the career, though, he did a good deal of each, and was really good at both.

The thing about this movie, though, is that Peter Sellers is nowhere near the funniest thing in it. His role isn’t quite a straight man, but the fun comes from surrounding him with hilarious people in outrageous parts: Eric Sykes and Roy Kinnear are hysterical as stereotypical gypsy layabout thieves (um, yes, racism in this picture and plenty of it, sorry about that) and Irene Handl and Miriam Karlin may be even better as their wives; the clergy range from wonderful (Cecil Parker, George Woodbridge and Kenneth Griffith) to convulsively funny (Ian Carmichael). Bernard Miles plays a viciously nasty butler; William Hartnell plays a priggish and condescending Major; Miles Malleson plays a pompous and complacent psychoanalyst. What is that, ten terrific comic roles? And that’s not counting the supporting roles that are important but not on the whole comic: Isobel Jeans as the rich and persuadable widow and Brock Peters as the fervent and idealistic garbageman.

Digressions: Kenneth Griffith’s few scenes as a charismatic Welsh clergyman in this 1963 movie were especially delightful for me as I recently rewatched his wonderful role as a charismatic Welsh clergyman in The Englishman Who Jumped in a Lake and Was Sent Up the River from 1995. On the other hand, Roy Kinnear’s genius of rolling shiftiness is not helped by having recently seen his son Rory Kinnear in last year’s Man Up—it’s a romcom that I didn’t like much anyway, but Rory was really creepily like Roy, to the point that I couldn’t even. William Hartnell is quite good in this and not in any way The Doctor; it was less distracting than John Pertwee in Ladies Who Do, but then I haven’t seen that many First Doctor episodes. Somehow I have never seen either Ian Carmichael’s Jeeves-and-Wooster series or his Lord Peter series, or at least I don’t recall them enough for his face to be more than a vaguely recognizable British 60s film face, like most of the others. End Digressions.

The plot… the plot… oh, who cares.

No, that’s not right. There is a plot, and it works—due to a mixup in names, the wrong Reverend John Smallwood (the prison chaplain, not the nice well-bred idiot) is given the parish of Orbiston Parva, and finds the population to be narrow-minded, bigoted, grasping, self-deluded, self-satisfied and pretty much one hundred percent unChristian. His drive for real lived Christianity (generous of spirit and treasure; loving of Gd, self and others; humble in everything except pride in the Power of the Lord) turns everything topsy-turvy. He upends the town economy, gets the local factory shut down and nearly destroys the British economy altogether. He is the living embodiment of faith, hope and charity; he ruins everything he touches. He forces everyone to acknowledge that which we can’t live with: the fundamental incompatibility of our aspirational goals and our comfortable lives. The thing is, and this is where Malcolm Muggeridge’s fingers get into the pot I believe, it’s not as if our aspirational goals really are compatible with uncomfortable lives, either. It is simultaneously a terribly funny movie and a terribly bleak satire. I loved it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.