Film Review – Mr. Church

Directed: Bruce Beresford

Writer: Susan McMartin

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Britt Robertson, Natascha McElhone 

Tagline: “He was the one person she could always count on.”

Trivia: The two books that are read aloud in the movie are “Madame Bovary” by Gustav Flaubert and the novel “The Rover” by Joseph Conrad.

Mr. Church is a great example of a movie where audience liked it while critics and any screenwriter tore it to shreds.

It’s enough to see the score it gets on Rotten Tomatoes to see the difference between how moviegoers evaluated it (80%) and how critics did (23%).

That’s the difference between watching a movie when you understand the craft and when you are blissfully ignorant and rely on how it makes you feel.

I watched the movie for the first time when it came out in 2016 before I knew anything about screenwriting, plot, structure or characters and I loved it.

I thought Eddy Murphy gave a fantastic performance, which showed his versatility and his ability to portrait more characters than his usual comic ones.

I was touched by the story and left the cinema knowing I watched a heartfelt movie, which I would remember for a long time.

Watching it again three years later I could see all the reasons critics tore it down, I could see the pitfalls in the script and how archaic it was.

Did it stop me liking the movie? NO.

I was still moved all because Eddy Murphy gave a fantastic performance of a lonely and enigmatic man who finds a family in the most unexpected circumstances.

Eddie Murphy plays Mr. Church who was hired to cook for a dying woman, Marie (Natascha McElhone) and her young daughter, Charlie (Natalie Coughlin and later Britt Robertson), by Marie’s deceased, and very rich, former lover.

The arrangement was strictly to be a temporary one; six months, which was how much time the doctors, have given Marie after her diagnosis of breast cancer.

In return for keeping his promise to Marie’s benefactor, Mr. Church has been promised a salary for the rest of his life. 

But six months turns into six years and still Mr. Church remains. Not only does he cook, but also he helps around the house during the day, assists Marie when her health deteriorates, and is there for Charlotte throughout her life.

They become a family and share a sense of home with each other, despite the difficult circumstances that brought them together .

The story on it’s own is not different than any other tearjerker we’ve seen before. We have it all, the single mother, a child out of wedlock, an “angel” who is sent to help in difficult times, cancer, death, relationship that starts with animosity and turns into a deep appreciation and gratefulness. So, why was there such a racket about this movie?

Here are some of my observations for the reasons the critics hated it.

First, most of the movie has a voiceover narrated by the older Charlie, Britt Robertson, in long passages that tell rather than show.

Her words serve as the only proof of the close bond she has with Mr. Church, making their friendship ring completely hollow as we only see one side of it, which is how much Mr. Church took care of her and nothing from her side towards him except her words

Voiceover has been a technique that has been shunned by critics due to the fact that it is regarded as a lazy way of writing because it is used in places where showing becomes challenging.

However, as a moviegoer who does not understand those terms, if the voiceover is good (Morgan Freeman as the eternal benchmark) then audience enjoys it and it gives us a moment to breathe.

Another reason was that we never learn anything about Mr. Church except that he was good in cooking, playing jazz and loved reading the classics.

No matter how much the older Charlie tried to learn about him beyond his role at home she, and the audience, couldn’t learn anything new about him.

The exception was seeing him at his favorite jazz place, which was a dodgy one, where he plays the piano and gets drunk. We get hints that he has an unfinished business with his own deceased father, which we never learn what it was all about.

Throughout the movie Mr. Church remains an enigmatic person to us. .

But I guess the major reason the critics were appalled by the movie was the film’s racial politics, particularly its stereotypical evocation of willing servitude by an African-American, and its characters’ refusal to acknowledge this imbalance of power, which make it not so much old-fashioned as downright retrograde

However, I was wondering would the critics be so offensive about the movie if Mr. Church were a white English butler?

Would they have torn the movie to pieces as they did if this time it was a lonely single white man who is proud of his profession, as a butler, cooks great, loves jazz and obviously is well read.

I don’t think so. I think then the beauty of the story which is one of kindness and gratefulness would have shine above all the other blunders of the script.

Verdict – 3/5 Stars in my book


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