Calvary (2014) – Review

Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Written by John Michael McDonagh
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly

With regular input from and collaboration with his brother, Martin, John Michael McDonagh has already forged a reputation that demands respect. Having at least a creative hand in the likes of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths has done him no harm at all, as The Guard and Calvary are testament to. Consistently achieving critical praise is no mean feat and whilst there has been the odd slip-up along the way, the brothers McDonagh appear to be going from strength to strength. Evidence of this can be found here, with Brendan Gleeson again McDonagh’s first (and seemingly only) choice to play the lead role of Father James, the head of a small Irish parish, littered with character(s), who is about to get something of a rude awakening as he sits in confessional one normal, decidedly average day.
Before you’re five minutes in, the plot has been nicely laid out for you. Sitting on the other side of the confessional box is a man who tells Father James a rather unpleasant tale about his experience of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of priest, not unlike Father James. Upon further questioning, we learn that this priest is dead and in order to facilitate proper closure for this now grown up victim, he needs to kill a priest. Not a bad priest, as that would not be enough of an affront to the religion he now holds in such disregard. It has to be a good priest. A man like Father James. He tells Father James that he will kill him this coming Sunday and to be at the beach on that day, so he may carry out his threat.
So does Father James do what he believes he should and die for the sins of others? Is that not what he has been taught is the right thing to do? Well, to tell you the outcome would ruin the film, but instead we get to focus on the week leading up to Sunday as Father James bears this terrible personal burden and delve into the lives of his parishioners.
What follows is almost a whodunnit for something that hasn’t yet happened. During the course of his week, Father James comes into contact with many of his flock in the normal course of his duties. He visits a married couple, the wife of which is having an affair with the local mechanic, a lord of the manor type that rattles around in his massive house all alone, shoots clay pigeons and drinks like alcohol is about to go out of fashion, an elderly American novelist who now lives as a hermit in a place only accessible by boat and even a member of the local constabulary that has an unashamed liking for rent boys. His daughter comes to visit from London for a few days where the opportunity for a different kind of closure steps forward for both her and himself, regarding the loss of his wife and her mother.
As we are introduced to each of these brilliantly realised and malleably played characters, it is not only the admirable rendering of a unique and vivid community that we get to appreciate, but also the relentless sense of pointlessness that you can forgive Father James for starting to feel. He is resolute, however, determined and responsible for the people that he feels rely on his guidance and friendship. When it becomes worryingly clear that maybe the towns’ inhabitants are not as needy for spiritual fulfilment as he first believed, this strikes an uncomfortable chord. By the saturday, he has decided to make for Dublin, but sees an airport worker leaning on the coffin of a husband he read the last rites to only days earlier and it may be at this point that a decision is finally made. This simple lack of respect for another human being was seemingly his last straw?As always, Brendan Gleeson is excellent. He is perfectly cast, even if McDonagh sometimes steps ever so closely to Father Ted territory through the use of some quipped humour from Father James, which the more Catholic of the audience may not find altogether acceptable or believable. Still, those of a less zealotist bent will be able to revel in the sophisticated scripting that will bring wry smiles aplenty. Gleeson’s mass, inscrutable demeanour and unfathomable hair, not to mention his plain and simple overbearing presence all make for a character just made for his calling and this audience. He is never less than magnetic and the film would have been considerably less palatable without him.

Great support comes in the form of a whole host of admirable character turns from the likes of Dylan Moran, Chris O’Dowd, M Emmett Walsh, Kelly Reilly and others that go to compliment Gleeson’s lead, breathing life into this beautifully shot, elegantly believable community. An altogether enjoyable, albeit simple, story that will, by turns, make you both chuckle and grimace in equal measure. It has heart and soul and although it may not make you ‘feel good’, you’ll have trouble denying that it has entertained.




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