Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly
During confession on a Sunday, father James Lavelle (Gleeson), is told by one of his parishioners that they were abused as a child by a priest and now want vengeance. However with that particular priest now dead, the parishioner has decided that he will kill a good priest, and tells father James that he will kill him. This parishioner gives father James a week to ‘get his house in order’ and in the subsequent week James spends this time to contemplate his impending fate and try to get some satisfying closure in his life, and that of the eclectic characters in his small local parish.
Watching the latest offering from one of the brothers McDonagh, with two directorial efforts apiece now, John’s output seems to have taken the opposite direction to Martin’s. Martin’s In Bruges was in my view one of the best of the last decade, but then Seven Psychopaths was certainly amusing and fun, but it was a little smug and self referential to the point of laziness. While John’s directorial debut The Guard had some great moments, Calvary in my view eclipses it in every way. Calvary is an elegant and intelligent film that examines some poignant and relevant themes and ideas through its stunning script and also boasts some sublime performances.
Though James knows who his potential killer is, the narrative makes no real attempt to reveal who it is (though I thought it was pretty obvious due to a certain actor’s very distinctive voice), who it actually is for me is not that important. Calvary may well be open to interpretation and mean different things to different people (that is only a good thing and compliment to McDonagh’s script), but for me James’ cathartic journey plays as a direct parallel to that of Jesus in his final week and examines many poignant themes. Indeed, one of the characters says to James that he is compiling a list of famous suicides, which includes Jesus.
As James tries to ‘get his house in order’ and help the lives of his parishioners, it seems to only open up darker revelations or provide bigger hurdles. The parishioners themselves may seem initially to be Father Ted style Irish caricatures and James’ conversations with them often provides moments of great humour, but they individually represent something far more than eccentric locals to laugh at. As James individually talks to them the narrative inevitably does feel a tad episodic (maybe adding 10 minutes to the running time may have made it a feel a little smoother), but the words in their conversations manage to be often amusing, profound or cautionary (often all three at the same time). This is a film that is happy to occasionally be self referential and self aware, all laced with an underlying dark humour, but never to the point of smug or taking us out of the moment (take note Martin). Thankfully everything is underplayed enough for us to make our conclusions and interpretations, making the whole experience infinitely more rewarding and moving. The characters themselves all have a huge part to play, I of course do not want to say too much, but I certainly felt the existence of each character was justified as they each represented a uniqueness that played a vital role in not just James’ journey, but that of the film as a whole and our experience as the viewer.
Appearing in pretty much every scene, Brendan Gleeson is a phenomenal screen presence. McDonagh himself stated that with so many films coming out focussing on the darker scandals of the Catholic Church, he wanted to make a film about a good priest. Of course sexual abuse plays a huge part in what drives the narrative, our protagonist here is a genuinely good man. James of course is human, and demonstrates the flaws we all exhibit (especially in references to his past), but only ever has good intentions, even if that is met with very mixed reactions from his parishioners. Though the release timing and fickle nature of the industry may mean his performance gets ignored by awards, Gleeson deserves universal praise of the highest order for his beautifully understated performance that captures perfectly so many emotions.
Providing the main heart and soul of the film, as James’ daughter – who has recently survived a suicide attempt, Kelly Reilly gives an excellent heartfelt performance, and the scenes the two of them share are the film’s most moving and in some ways most revealing about the strength and dignity of James as a priest and a man. Though it seems every slightly well known Irish actor is in Calvary, the likes of Dylan Moran, Aiden Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, the lesser known actors playing other locals and New Yorker and veteran of 77 years of age M. Emmet Walsh all convince in their various roles. However though his casting makes sense form a financial and marketing point of view, I did find Chris O’Dowd to be out of his depth and over acting as a result. Though it is a little off putting, it is one of Calvary’s few problems.
The beautiful scenery and Larry Smith’s cinematography add even more atmosphere and mood to an already rich film. A scene, which for me is one of the film’s defining moments (no spoilers, but it involves an airport and a coffin) has no dialogue whatsoever, proving John Michael McDonagh as a very talented and intelligent storyteller. The film’s finale is without a doubt emotionally satisfying, but for me a few stylistic choices from McDonagh are questionable, feeling a little out of place and tone from the rest of the film. Though these in no way undermine what is otherwise a deeply involving, often funny and touching film, it did feel a strange choice and did remove slightly from the moment.
Faith does not necessarily have to involve religion, and in my view Calvary examines this in a profound and intelligent way, with a generous helping of perfectly judged subtle humour. With an exceptional central performance from Gleeson and an almost perfect script, Calvary is in my view one of the year’s most intelligent and satisfying films.