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Film review: Heavenly Pursuits

05 July 2024

Stephen Brown watches a film of miracles

Helen Mirren and Tom Conti in Heavenly Pursuits

Helen Mirren and Tom Conti in Heavenly Pursuits

YOU would think that when miracles start occurring, church authorities would at least want to assess their validity. Not so, if Heavenly Pursuits (Cert. 15), the 1986 comedy at last on Blu-ray (plus special features), is to be believed. Vic (Tom Conti) and Ruth (Helen Mirren) are teachers at Glasgow’s Blessed Edith Semple Secondary School. Strange things get perceived by some as miracles. Alice, an incurably ill pupil, starts walking again after Assembly prayers. Another, falling from the school roof, escapes certain death by Vic’s intervention. A boy with severe learning difficulties flourishes. Such occurrences create pressure to seek the Blessed Edith’s canonisation. (It’s thought that the writer/director Charles Gormley borrowed the Protestant evangelist and faith-healer Aimee Semple McPherson’s middle name for the school.)

Despite the advocacy of the parish priest Fr Cobb (Brian Pettifer), the headmaster, diocesan bishop, and Vatican suppress talk of miracles. The picture doesn’t make clear why. Vic agrees with them for different reasons. He’s the voice of rationalism. As a remedial teacher, he believes (note the word) that everyone is special and that patient persistence effected a pupil’s educational breakthrough. Likewise, he’d claim with the hospital’s chief surgeon that Alice’s recovery isn’t a miracle but something that cannot yet (but will eventually) have a logical explanation.

Perhaps, but Vic becomes increasingly uncomfortable that he may be an instrument of the God in whom he doesn’t believe. His record player emits music even when the electric current is turned off. His terminal brain tumour mysteriously heals. The boy on the roof is rescued when Vic literally takes a leap of faith across a 17-foot chasm. And, while he himself resists intimations of divine activity, Ruth gently offers him an alternative perspective on the universe.

Gormley never entirely comes down decisively on either side. He has the humility, though, to infer that perhaps it’s Vic with the learning difficulties. Ruth opens his heart as well as his head sufficiently for him to consider it possible his mindset is closed to creation’s awesome possibilities.

And while the jury remains out on that one, there’s another dimension being examined alongside it: the position of a miracle-maker. It is here that the story takes a different route from certain other movies. Films such as The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1937), based on an H. G. Wells’s tale, concludes that humanity is not ready to handle supernatural powers. The same goes for titles like Gremlins (1984) and Bruce Almighty (2003). Heavenly Pursuits relies on the reluctance of Gormley’s hero to accept the supernatural gifts that he’s been vouchsafed. He tests “God” by driving at top speed through the city centre, astonished to discover every traffic light goes green on approach. It is enough for him to admit that he’s at the disposal of this unseen, unknown power.

As a film, it feels of its time, but the issues raised continue to resonate as we ponder our existence. Laughs are fairly scarce for something billed as a comedy. Either it’s too true to be funny or, more likely, it pays a certain price for being serious.

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