Calvary (2014)

2016 #91
John Michael McDonagh | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Ireland & UK / English | 15 / R

From the director of In Bruges’ older brother (who, in fairness, made a name for himself with 2011 comedy The Guard, which I’ve still not got round to) comes this dark (very dark) comedy drama — with emphasis on the latter, I suppose, but it is very funny along the way.

Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, The Guard) stars as Father James, a priest in a small Irish town. One day at confession he’s told he is going to be murdered. Not for anything he did wrong, but precisely the opposite — because he is a good priest. The mysterious threatener gives him a week to get his affairs in order. Over the next seven days, we follow James as he interacts with his characterful parishioners, and are led to ponder which of them might be the would-be assassin, especially as so many seem cynical and nasty. All the while, James struggles internally with what is the right thing to do.

That’s the story of Calvary, at any rate, but it’s fairly clear that it’s about something more. What exactly that is, however, is a matter of debate. Could it be an apologia for the church and the wrongs it has inflicted in living memory? It certainly leans into those issues: without spoiling anything, the inciting incident is related to historic abuse, but the film is showing that priests aren’t all like that — that some people in the church are actually good, or at least as good as any of the rest of us — which I should imagine is true. That doesn’t make the film an apology, nor an excuse, but does raise a point: should the innocent be blamed for the wrongdoings of the guilty just because they share a belief? I think most rational people would agree they should not. Nonetheless, I’ve read at least one commenter, who I’m presuming was a hardened atheist, castigate the film for daring to feature a good priest, as if the very concept of one existing was a heinous and offensive suggestion. Conversely, in the special features Chris O’Dowd speaks of his initial wariness that this was going to be another “bad priest” movie, and how that doesn’t align with his personal experience of the clergy.

So could it, instead, merely be a snapshot of Irish society, in particular its current relationship with the church? Surely that’s part of what’s in play, with the cynical, dismissive, teasing, sometimes hateful attitudes of the parishioners surely no coincidence. Some viewers have certainly taken this as the film’s primary talking point, and some have been less than impressed that it doesn’t align with their view of modern Ireland. (I’m in no position to comment.) Neither of these feel like they’re getting at the totality of what it’s saying, though.

Nonetheless, the way the film presents itself is not at fault. The acting is strong across the board, none more so than Gleeson. He brings all kinds of facets to a man who could’ve been a blank page on which to project the other colourful characters, and he truthfully conveys major character moments and changes of direction without the need for dialogue. O’Dowd surprises in a rare non-comedic role, while further able support comes from recognisable faces like Kelly Reilly (as James’ troubled daughter), Dylan Moran (as a nouveau riche dick) , Marie-Josée Croze (as a bereaved holidaymaker), M. Emmet Walsh (as an ageing author), and — for just one scene, but a good one — Domhnall Gleeson (you can discover what he is when you watch it). And no offence to Aidan Gillen, but his smarmy atheist doctor feels like the kind of part he always plays.

That’s not to exclude the less familiar names, some of whom deliver many of the biggest laughs, like Killian Scott (as a slightly worrying simpleton), David Wilmot (as James’ naïve fellow clergyman), and Owen Sharpe (as a Brooklyn-accented promiscuous gay) — though if you watch Ripper Street, you may have seen a couple of them in quite different guises. And though it may be a cliché, McDonagh has successfully made the location a character, too: the towering mountain, an accidental discovery once on location, adds the looming presence the director hoped it would.

Calvary may in fact be a great film, if only I could put my finger on what I think it’s really trying to get at, which remains frustratingly out of my reach, at least for now. However, I will say it’s a very good one, and anyone who likes a character-driven drama scattered with dark but hilarious humour would do well to seek it out.

4 out of 5

Calvary is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video UK as of yesterday.

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