John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is the kind of film that stays with you long after the credits finish, partly because of its gut-punch ending, partly because of the strength of the acting, and partly because of the successful way in which it examines a broad variety of linked subjects with a fresh, modern sensibility. With a well-judged blend of heavy drama and black comedy the Irish writer / director has built on the promising success of his debut film The Guard with this fine study of faith, predetermined fate, forgiveness, fatherhood, abuse within the Catholic Church and the breakdown of traditionally-held values.
In The Guard Brendan Gleeson played a police officer in Ireland’s Garda Síochána who drank and used drugs while on duty. Here in Calvary the same actor delivers a strong performance as a threatened priest, a similarly-flawed character working for a huge institution that must keep a firm grip on matters of society in order to justify its existence and retain the same relevance it held in the past. In both films McDonagh appears to be questioning how organisations that are charged with keeping a traditional moral order can remain valid or respected when they are made up with fallible, imperfect humans dealing with their own personal struggles.
The opening sets the tone and the scene: Gleeson’s Father James, a rural priest in a parish on the west coast of Ireland, is talking to an unseen parishioner during a confessional. The parishioner discusses the childhood sexual abuse he received from another priest and tells Father James he intends to kill him the following Sunday as retribution, as the abuser has since died and the Catholic Church is more inclined to sit up and take notice if a ‘good’ priest pays for the acts with his life. Father James – who knows the identity of the man who threatened him but refuses to say who it is – has a week to contemplate whether he should defend himself from the forthcoming attempted murder or trust in his own faith and ability to change the would-be killer’s mind. The aggressor’s identity is kept secret from the viewer, however, and the town appears to be full of potential suspects: could it be Aidan Gillen’s angry atheist doctor, Chris O’Dowd’s wife-beating butcher, Isaach de Bankolé’s adulterous mechanic, Dylan Moran’s arrogant and materialistic rich businessman, or someone else entirely?
This is much more than a mere who’sgonnadoit, though, and the town isn’t simply depicted as a depressing haven for Ireland’s most resentful, bitter citizens. Even among those four Gillen’s character is a doctor, and his role in society is to help sick people; O’Dowd’s character is genial, friendly and apparently a much-liked member of the community, despite his actions behind closed doors; and Moran’s businessman donates huge sums to the church, even though it is a thinly-veiled method of assuaging his own guilt. Father James interacts with all of these figures during his weekly rounds, and many more besides, including M. Emmet Walsh’s ailing writer, Domhnall Gleeson’s unrepentant convicted murderer and Killian Scott’s socially-awkward Milo. He exerts a positive influence on various people even when he is merely acting as a sounding board for their disgruntlement with religion and Catholicism in particular; as he travels around various homes and workplaces the priest must keep his calm and his sense of perspective when threatened, insulted and irritated, and must struggle with his own faith and willingness to forgive when acts of violence begin to reach him long before the Sunday deadline. The return home of his London-based daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) following an attempted suicide does not make the week any easier.
While McDonagh treats these characters and their respective issues with the respect they deserve, he also weaves some fine humour into the film, with a number of amusing lines ensuring a rounded, honest look at modern Ireland as well as lightening the mood on occasion. With its rural, coastal backdrop – wonderfully shot by Larry Smith – it’s hard not to think of the great Catholic-baiting sitcom Father Ted from time to time, such is the sharpness of the writing (though in fact it is the citizens here who are jabbed by the nib of McDonagh’s pen, by and large, and not the Church itself). Calvary has a wicked comic edge and lines like ‘I think she’s bipolar, or lactose intolerant, one of the two’ had me chuckling away, temporarily forgetting the rather sad and grim nuts and bolts of the story.
Despite the comic flecks there is a steadily-building ominous tone as title cards for each day of the week remind the viewer of the impending day of reckoning. Weighty themes like temptation, forgiveness and sacrifice hang over the film throughout as well: Father James sees forgiveness in particular as underrated, and claims there is too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues; nearly all of his tête-à-têtes with other people involve the subject of forgiveness in some way. Yet despite his commitment to the teachings found in scripture he too finds it difficult to forgive at times: his visits to Domhnall Gleeson’s incarcerated and unrepentant murderer leave him feeling particularly frustrated (and, incidentally, Brendan Gleeson is so convincing in his role it only occurred to me afterwards that I’d been watching scenes that were acted by a real life father and son). Meanwhile the temptation to protect his own life as the Sunday deadline approaches grows ever stronger, and Father James’ status as a sounding board / punchbag for disgruntled, resentful parishioners pushes him closer and closer to violence.
Gleeson is the film’s rock, and Calvary contains fine acting by a man who should now be seen as one of Ireland’s greatest character actors. His Father James is entirely believable, with the actor subtly building signs of internal conflict into the performance alongside quiet, restrained dignity. The support is very good, with Reilly, de Bankolé and Moran all impressing in particular. My only gripe with regard to the cast is that Aidan Gillen is a little over the top as the doctor who hates the Catholic Church; his accent is similar to that of his character Littlefinger in the more recent seasons of TV’s Game Of Thrones and sounds very forced as he repeatedly snarls away at Father James, which is strange given the fact that this is a film set in the actor’s native Ireland.
This is a balanced and mature view of faith and the church, simultaneously recognising its historic failings – particularly the shameful abuse issue – while also acknowledging the quiet, positive influence that an essentially good man like Father James or a concept such as forgiveness can have on an individual or a community. The problem here is that he is a mere mortal: he cannot influence everyone and many of the characters he comes into contact with, for different reasons, can’t be – or don’t want to be – reached. In this story there is a serious threat to a religious man’s faith in God, and watching his dignified week-long struggle makes for fascinating, mature drama. Calvary is a satisfying and stimulating work and Gleeson’s performance in particular is superb.
Directed by: John Michael McDonagh
Written by: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankolé, M. Emmett Walsh
Running Time: 100 minutes