Film: “Mr. Church”; Cast: Eddie Murphy and Britt Robertson; Director: Bruce Beresford; Rating: ****

Having spent a lifetime and an evening together, at the end of this enormously heartwarming and fulfilling cinematic experience, Eddie Murphy who plays the title role with spectacularly subtle skill, is told by the film’s young protagonist that she will now give him his privacy for the evening.

“I don’t want my privacy,” replies Murphy, repudiating a lack of company in his final hour, his eyes pleading with the fear of impending mortality.

It’s the moment that defines the relationship between cinema and the audience, the dread we feel when a masterpiece nears its completion.

Death plays a very important part in Beresford’s latest grossly underrated film about friendship between unlikely people in a culturally dynamic society.

When Henry Church (Eddie Murphy) enters Charlie’s home, she is a small inquisitive girl whose mother is dying of cancer. Charlie doesn’t know it, though.

The sudden appearance of a tall black stranger in the house triggers off waves of hostility, suspicion and aggression in little Charlie who at first refuses to experience Mr. Church’s culinary skills and then refuses to let him know she loves the food.

From the start, this deeply moving film pulls you gently into the tender dynamics of domesticity and how an extraneous presence brings in its wake a lifetime of changes, all for the better, Beresford’s elegiac film — based on Susan McMartin’s first-person account — is the cinematic equivalent of pale yellow leaves dropping off a huge magnificent tree during autumn.

Sometimes in life, death is a beginning and a renewal. Mr. Church reinforces the exquisite truisms of life without getting preachy, shrill or self-righteous in tone. It is melancholic and meditative but never cumbersome or depressing for the audience.

Though it is an extremely virtuous film, almost to the point of blanking out all negativity, this is a film that never allows us to forget how close lives are to catastrophe even as it offers the comfort of a warm cosy family life where a mysterious and multi-faceted black man shares a cosy roof with a white American girl and her little daughter.

Idyllic scenes of shared meals in the kitchen and laughter in the living room mingles with the disturbing ring-tone of tragic forebodings that are never far away from the films’s gleaming spotless surface.

The director is no stranger to cross-cultural dynamics. In his most well-known work “Driving Miss Daisy”, a black chauffeur (Morgan Freeman) taught lessons of life to his upper-class white employee (Jessica Tandy).

In “Mr. Church”, the colour of Eddie Murphy’s skin is never brought up. Remarks on race are remarkably dodged and dismissed. It is as though the world inhabited by the film’s arcadian characters does not accept the preponderance of discrimination and segregation. Seldom in today’s cinema do we see a world so denuded of darkness.

The surprise is not that Besreford’s film paints the remotest corner of his canvas with sunshine. The real surprise is how skillfully and fluently Eddie Murphy has gone from his roguish cheesy roles in his youth to playing a man who is erudite, literate, wise, sensitive and humane, all of this without losing that twinkle in the eye.

Britt Robertson and little Natalie Coughlin, who play Charlie, are also dazzling in their deep kinship to the mission of walking on sunshine. And Natascha McElhone as Charelie’s dying mother reminded of Meryl Streep’s tragic grandeur in “Sophie’s Choice”.

There are moment of sublimity and splendour dotting the shimmering skyline of this miniature masterpiece. During a year when big screen spectacles have invaded the cinematic space, “Mr. Church” shows us how Billy Wilder’s style of humanistic cinema can still overpower Quentin Tarantino’s violent cynicism.

By Subhash K. Jha

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