Director: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly
11 mins; Class 18; KRS
Writer/director John Michael McDonagh and actor Brendan Gleeson first teamed up in 2011’s blackly comic The Guard, where the latter played a boozed-up racist police officer in rural Ireland to great effect.
For their second outing together, Gleeson once more plays a man in uniform – this time a man of the cloth – in the equally compelling Calvary. We first meet Fr James as he is listening to confession. “I’m going to kill you, Father,” says the (unseen) man in the confessional.
“Certainly a startling opening line,” Fr James retorts, remaining utterly calm as the man narrates the reason for this chilling threat – his abuse at the hands of another priest when he was a child.
What happens next is less a thriller than an intense – and darkly funny – character study of what lies simmering beneath the surface of a seemingly benign, rural Irish community.
An exquisitely-written script that provides great fodder
Fr James sets out not to find out who his would-be assassin is – you suspect that he knows, even though the audience is kept in the dark. His motivation is less to save his own life –and soul – than to connect with his parishioners, a community of people including some very dark and disturbed individuals, any of whom could well be the culprit.
The setting and the plot form the basis of an exquisitely-written script that provides great fodder for the exceptional ensemble of characters; many of them bit parts, each of whom however gets their moment to shine.
Special mentions to Kelly Reilly, rather wonderful as Fiona, Fr James’s emotionally troubled daughter (he came to the priesthood late in life) who shares some moving scenes with Gleeson; Chris O’Dowd as local butcher Jack Brennan, who is experiencing marriage difficulties with his wandering and unhappy wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke); and Aiden Gillen as a cynical callous doctor. Add to that the ubiquitous pub owner (Pat Shortt); detective inspector (Gary Lydon); a wealthy financier (Dylan Moran); distraught French widow (Marie-Josée Croze) and an unrecognisable Domhnall Gleeson as a convicted killer. These are myriad characters who flit in and out of Fr James’s life inspiring and depressing him in equal measure.
As for Fr James himself, this is a good priest, blamed for the sins of the institution he represents. Although the issue of sexual abuse is at the centre of the story, the film neither trivialises nor sensationalises it. Fr James recognises the severity of this plague that the Church he forms part hasn’t quite come to grips with.
The script is more concerned with the protagonist himself and the imposing and charismatic Gleeson easily embodies the trials of a man who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, a man battling many demons.
He is a deeply flawed individual struggling to do the right thing by himself, his daughter, his congregation, his faith and God himself. But he is constantly hindered by the sense of mistrust and anger he faces from those around him.
“I think there is too much talk about sins and not enough talk about virtues,” he states at one point, a statement that lingers long after the credits roll on this film which effortlessly blends the themes of family, community and the Church and the sins committed by them all.