Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is a good –natured priest working in a small rural Irish parish. When he is threatened during confession, and given a week to get his house in order, James begins to see his parish, and parishioners, more clearly.
There has been a lot of talk about Calvary – John Michael McDonagh’s follow up to The Guard – not least since its debut at Sundance earlier this year. Be warned though; dark comedy about small people in a small town, this ain’t.
Brendan Gleeson reunites with McDonagh for the film, and it is really with Gleeson that the film lives and dies. Gleeson carries both stillness and rage throughout the weeklong journey that his character goes on. While Lavelle has a lot to deal with, Gleeson allows the priest’s own story to be told in the background showing him to be a flawed, but earnest man.
The rest of the cast is made up of Domhnall Gleeson in a remarkably eerie turn as a prison inmate, David Wilmot as a careful but ultimately small minded curate, Aidan Gillen as a creepy doctor, Dylan Moran as a detached and selfish former banker, Chris O’Dowd as a cuckolded local butcher and Kelly Reilly as James’s daughter Fiona. Each actor gives a solid performance, but it seems as though they are there to fulfil a role, rather than play a fully rounded character.
McDonagh’s screenplay tackles the notion of a man being punished for the crimes of others, and there is a very clear idea that he is trying to paint Gleeson’s character as a Christ-like one. This does not always work, however. The film also feels rather dour, with the forces of darkness closing in around the priest, there is little for him to find even a touch of joy in, and the town appears to be filled with people ready to kill or die, but not really live. As well as this, there are times when it feels as though Calvary is trying to deal with too much of what is going on in Ireland at the moment; sexual abuse by members of the church, the recession and selfish bankers are all exposed in the film, but little is done to resolve or comment on any of these issues. As Irish viewers, we already know about our history and the state of our nation at the moment, and Calvary does not bring anything new or innovative to the discussion.
There are some rather odd production choices also made in Calvary; edits seem to be rushed and, rather than letting a scene settle, we are often bombarded with the next one. The cinematography makes Sligo look as bleak and beautiful as it is, but the constant focus on Benbulben mountain is jarring at first, and quickly feels overused. It is clear that there is a parallel being drawn between the hill where Christ was crucified and the mountain under which this priest is being persecuted, but while this is obvious, it never quite lands.
Calvary is a film filled with great performances, but it ends up being a rather dour expose of Ireland’s woes, without any true resolution. The Donnie Darko-esque ending doesn’t help matters, but Gleeson et al do what they can, and some of the cinematography is truly lovely.