Still in Cinemas- Calvary: Review by William McClean

Calvary (*****)

Certificate 15

Running time: 101 minutes

Directed by John Michael McDonagh

Starring Brendan Gleeson,Chris O’Dowd,Kelly Reilly,Aidan Gillen and Dylan Moran.

(QFT Preview Screening)

FOLLOWING the success of The Guard was never going to be an easy task for John Michael McDonagh, but it’s surprising just how much darker the Irish director has decided to go with his follow up feature. Reteaming once again with Brendan Gleeson Calvary plays out more like a tragedy than an outright comedy, with its dark humour as black as Arthur Guinness’ famous Irish Stout.

Gleeson plays Father James an old-fashioned but good-natured Irish priest, determined to do his best for the inhabitants of his small County Sligo parish. But in the film’s opening moments while undertaking his weekly confessional duties, he is informed by an unknown parishioner that he will be murdered in seven days’ time.

Menacingly this person informs Gleeson’s character through the confessional box: “Sure there’s no point in killing a bad priest, there’s more impact from killing an innocent good priest.” His planned murder an act of revenge for the years of sexual abuse this person endured as a child at the hands of a now deceased Irish priest and an attack on the Catholic Church itself.

There’s a real sense of the growing maturity and confidence of McDonagh as both a screenwriter and director throughout the feature. Switching the tried and tested ‘who done it’ murder mystery formula to ‘who will do it’, the film should manage to keep viewers guessing on the identity of the priest’s eventual assailant until its final act.

Larry Smith’s beautiful cinematography of Sligo’s foreboding rural landscape and Patrick Cassidy’s wonderful musical score paint a vivid picture of Ireland straight from an Irish tourist-board commercial. This imagery though is quickly offset by the revelations of the sin-filled lives the inhabitants of James’ parish lead, highlighting a changing attitude towards the Catholic Church within Irish society.

Filled with enough symbolism to rival even the likes of James Joyce and Brian Friel, the image of Gleeson’s forlorn character standing amidst the burnt out ruins of his church is just one of many striking and memorable images throughout the feature. Where once the Irish priest was a respected member of the community, his moral authority over his flock now seems long gone.

Much like with The Guard McDonough litters his screenplay with a wonderful mix of eccentric characters, but everything is firmly held together by Gleeson’s towering yet wonderfully understated central performance. In many ways his character is the very antithesis of the outlandish Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a character of unwavering devotion to his faith. He joined the clergy to escape his own personal demons, but in doing so became saddled with the church’s own shameful past.

The Irish actor recently took home the Best Actor Award at the Irish Film and Television Awards for his performance and rightfully so. His portrayal of a character who has reluctantly accepted the inevitability of his fate, but remains determined and to see out his final days in as dignified a manner as possible is deeply moving.

Credit must also go to the film’s supporting cast including Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen and Dylan Moran. O’Dowd’s performance is a particularly pleasant surprise with a role that sees the Irish actor move away from the largely comedic roles he’s done to date, hopefully this performance won’t just be a one-off.

Sadly though, not everything works so well onscreen, much like her role in Robert Zemeckis’ feature Flight, British actress Kelly Reilly does the best she can with the role of James’s estranged daughter, but her character is never really developed.

The father/daughter relationship felt slightly superfluous to the central film’s plot, only dabbled with but never really satisfactorily explored. Equally the inclusion of Gleeson’s own son, Domhnall Gleeson in a short cameo sequence as a convicted murderer the priest goes to visit in prison felt a little unnecessary, only included for the novelty factor.

With a title like Calvary the film can’t escape the religious implications that it brings, surprisingly though the feature never felt shackled by such responsibility but more so it’s seemingly empowered by it. McDonagh’s screenplay uses pitch-black humour to great effect as a disarming device, making viewers laugh as it descends from comedy to tragedy.

Compared to his brother’s slightly underwhelming second feature Seven Psychopaths, Calvary is a much more satisfying viewing experience that sees the Irish director firmly building upon his fantastic 2011 directorial début. Some viewers might be surprised at just how much darker the film’s tone is in comparison to its predecessor, but strangely I found it an uplifting viewing experience.

A much-needed reminder that despite all the numerous scandals that have engulfed the Catholic Church of late,  there are still good priests out there throughout Ireland working hard within their communities to restore people’s faith in their institution.

Review By William McClean


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