Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Aiden Gillan
Written by: John McDonagh
Directed by: John McDonagh
“I’m going to kill you, Father.” Not the words Father James (Gleeson) was expecting to hear in the confessional booth. Torn between wanting to survive and to fulfil his priestly duties, what follows is a week of startling and troubling insight into the issues and flaws at the heart of his community, his faith, and his family.
Back in 2008, Martin McDonagh wrote and directed the relatively infamous In Bruges, a spectacularly foul-mouthed black comedy about two hitmen hiding out in Bruges after a botched job. Something of an instant cult classic, it seemed that his brother John had inherited some of the same style in 2011’s The Guard, another deeply black comedy which riffed on both Wild West films and buddy cop films, splicing many of those genre’s tropes together in rural Ireland. Given that Calvary is John’s second film, and the third of the brothers’ films to star Brendan Gleeson, you could be forgiven for assuming that it would be something similarly comic; blackly comic, perhaps, and comedy with teeth, comedy with brains, but a comedy nonetheless.
You would, as it happens, be mostly wrong. This is not to say that Calvary is not funny; it is very funny indeed, painfully so at times. One scene around the halfway mark had me almost paralytic with helpless hysterics, such was the perfection of writing and delivery. But the comedy is incidental, added spice to the burning intelligence and thoughtfulness at the heart of the drama. The film does play with your expectations in this regard, with the vast majority of the cast best known as comedians or comic actors, but laughter is not the main point of the film.
Neither is it a whodunit. Despite the impending death of Father James, there are only token efforts to solve the mystery of his would-be killer. He thinks he knows, and if you’re really good at identifying voices you might be able to work it out yourself. But the identity of the killer is irrelevant, really. The whole point is that the entire village is populated with people bitter enough with life and the church that they might contemplate such an act even before you consider the specific reasons he has for doing it (which I won’t mention, for fear of diluting one of the more shocking moments of the film – which is also its first line – but suffice it to say that it’s not a massive surprise if you’re aware of the Catholic church’s media reputation).
For all that though, Calvary is not a particularly anti-Catholic film. Catholicism comes in for a fair amount of flack, but then again so does pretty much every institution in Ireland. The most unpleasant person in the film is a die-hard atheist. And although Gleeson’s Father James is a flawed man, he is without question a good man. He drinks too much, he’s almost incapable of not skewering someone with a pointed remark, and he certainly has a temper. But he recognises his flaws, accepts them, lives with them. He is openly contemptuous of some of his parishioners, but if they turn up with a sincere request for help and guidance, he will do everything in his power to provide it. This is actually what drives the whole plot; is the right thing to do in such a situation actually to let your would be killer go through with the act, and salve his all-encompassing rage? It wouldn’t have worked if Gleeson’s performance had been sub-par, but he is majestic in the role. His first scene, with the camera relentlessly focused on his face as the off-screen confessor tells him what’s going to happen, and why, is riveting, Gleeson perfectly selling the transition between shock and anguish.
He has admirable support from the rest of the cast. Kelly Reilly is wonderful as James’ estranged daughter (he wasn’t always a priest), bruised and vulnerable and still brimming with hope. Elsewhere, Aiden Gillan is impressive as a truly vicious doctor, revelling in his black-hearted lack of faith, while Dylan Moran and Chris O’Dowd both portray outwardly happy yet inwardly troubled souls with a skill that might surprise anyone more familiar with their comic roles. On top of that, McDonagh’s script is spot on, beautifully written and planned, and never feeling contrived despite the desire to fit to a theme.
Really, the whole film is spot on. It’s a rare occasion indeed that I can’t think of a single negative aspect to something, but I’m really struggling with Calvary. It’s a perfect marriage of intelligence, passion, power and heart, with outstanding performances, writing and direction to wrap it all up. It is without question the best film I’ve seen so far this year, and I can’t imagine anything knocking it off pole position. It’s over a week since I saw it, and I’m still absorbing it all.