The Reverend's Secret Mission documentary review

Updated: Mar 20, 2019

★★★

Directed by: #PWilliamGrimm

Written by: #PWilliamGrimm

Starring: #IanButton (narrator)

Film Review by: #DarrenTilby



Born in Hendon, 1909, to Colin and Ida Hession. Brian’s childhood, at least, was less than remarkable. But by his untimely death in 1961, Hession would go on to work on several Hollywood productions, butt heads with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and become a trailblazer for #cancerawareness. So why has this impressive legacy largely faded into obscurity? Well, that’s the monumental task facing film-maker, P. William Grimm.


In The Reverend’s Secret Mission, Grimm examines (seemingly) every facet of Rev. Brian Hession’s life. From his rebellious youth spent at #Christian camp, to becoming a member of the clergy with a keen interest in cinema, to his work on Hollywood productions: Hession's life was anything but ordinary. It’s also clear Grimm has put a lot of time and energy into sourcing the material needed to make this #documentary; much of which are faded photographs, old film reel and tattered communications. And to his credit, this is – for the better part – a well put-together film. But while the film is certainly informative, I do wonder whether it’s a little too long.


The sheer number of names recalled throughout the #documentary, people who had impacted on Rev. Hession in one way or another, or had dealings with him, can seem somewhat overwhelming. At several points during the film, I had to pause it to take in all the names and places or think whether I’d heard that name before. I can understand why the director wanted to be as thorough as possible here, but it was a little jarring here and there. I feel on repeat viewings, this probably wouldn’t be such a problem. And indeed, this is a film which would benefit from multiple viewings. But at over 2-hours long, that’s a big ask.


There are a plethora of interviewees (17 in all) and masses of correspondence and newspaper cuttings, also. And whilst both contribute well to the overall feel of the film, there are issues to be found: some of the voice acting works (which are vocalised excerpts of the correspondence) can seem a little forced and poorly read at times and the interview sections seem occasionally poorly lit, revealing the low quality of the camera used. For the better part though, these problems can be ignored and don’t really have much impact on the film as a whole.


The biggest problem, however, is the slide-away editing during the interviews. It’s a really odd ‘fade out of interview’ choice anyway. But it doesn’t just occur once a person has finished talking. Instead, it insists on sliding away after every other sentence. Sometimes, whilst people are still talking. It’s messy, incoherent, unnecessary and really off-putting, and is my biggest gripe with the film.


Now, with all that said, there is an awful lot I liked about the film too. The narration from Ian Button is sublime, as are the writing and presentation of information and important life events. There are some superb #animated sequences (from Emily Timm) during the film and incredibly effective soundtrack. My favourite moment, however, is the old footage of one of Rev. Hession's services, which he had recorded and put together himself.


Filmed during #WorldWar2, Hession lingers on the bedraggled faces of his congregation. The effects of war are apparent, and the film is utterly moving; it's easy to imagine that Hession would have made quite the film-maker had he been allowed. But it's his work on #cancerawareness that I believe is his greatest legacy. Well ahead of his time, Hession published brochures on recognising the signs of #cancer, hosted meetings for #cancer sufferers/survivors and even published books on the matter. All whilst suffering from #cancer himself.


Rev. Brian Hession was quite an incredible person: a religious man, a filmmaker, and a campaigner. So why then, is he not more well-known? To put it simply, he was too ahead of his time. Hession faced opposition from almost every direction during his life; whether from the church or from film producers or from doctors. And yet he fought on. Indeed, he himself said it best when he wrote 'Whatever our problems in life—don’t let them lick you.’


By bringing his story to the fore, Grimm is honouring Rev. Hession's legacy in the only way we're now able. And, in spite of its issues, The Reverend's Secret Mission is a thoroughly enjoyable and affecting piece of film-making that had me welling up more times than I care to admit.