Calvary is John Michael McDonagh’s second film with Brendan Gleeson following 2011’s modest cult hit comedy The Guard. The reunion is a welcome one, and it’s heartening to see McDonagh maturing – good as The Guard was, this is certainly a superior offering – though fans of that film’s broadly jovial stride may find themselves at a loss when presented with Calvary‘s more serious, contemplative approach.
Calvary regards itself certainly as a comedy drama, but in this instance the emphasis is placed squarely on the latter. Deft and wicked use of the former allow for an enjoyable, multi-faceted journey through what is, in fact, a comparatively serious look at faith and it’s place in the modern world.
Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, the rarest of modern dramatic archetypes – the good priest. One Sunday in the confession booth he is threatened by a voice familiar to him; a member of his congregation has decided to kill him, and allows him one week to get his affairs in order. Lavelle, unable to immediately answer to this bizarre deadline, decides to let things play out. McDonagh’s film follows him through this week.
Calvary is set in a small coastal Irish town, and while the picturesque remote setting may not seem emblematic of contemporary society and all of its restless modes of being, it works well for McDonagh as members of the tight-nit community come to act as emblems for different character types in the modern world. As such the film has a subtle Brechtian quality to it, reminiscent of Dogville albeit without the eye-catching cinematic constraints.
While Calvary may have started out for Gleeson and McDonagh as a character piece, it seems to have evolved into something greater – a discussion of where our values lie in present day society, what’s been eroded and what can be salvaged. There’s an elegiac quality here that underpins nearly every scene, save only for the rare moment played purely for comedy.
Through this journey a portrait of a community is drawn which is particularly damning. Lavelle seems outmoded within a circle of people struggling to deny their inherent failures. Ultimately Lavelle’s presence starts to become irksome to the locals; an unpleasant reminder that there are moral compasses by which their actions could (should?) be steered. Calvary works, on one level, as a whodunnit, and there are plenty of suspects uneasy at the sight of their own sin reflected back at them.
McDonagh’s film feels like a queasy warning – one similar to Hanake’s in The White Ribbon – and while the particular faith from which Lavelle draws his convictions could be argued as immaterial, the prevailing suggestion remains that without a code of integrity of some description, we are doomed to our own destruction. The film opens and closes with scenes that we assume will be confessional, but leave us questioningly adrift. It’s a sobering prospect for an audience, especially if you were expecting something more akin to a Father Ted feature film.
Attune yourself to Calvary‘s meditative rhythms, however, and you’ll be richly rewarded with a small drama that asks some prickly ethical questions of the viewer, but not before it’s provided fertile ground for some great performances. McDonagh has drawn together a fine cast, and Gleeson receives a plethora of notable support. Chris O’Dowd is gifted a role which allows him to show a greater range than he’s previously been afforded, while Kelly Reilly is heartbreaking as Lavelle’s brittle daughter.
It doesn’t end there though. Aidan Gillen captures attention as a cynical medic prone to provoking Lavelle with stories designed to ruffle the priest’s faith, while the likes of the always-watchable Isaach De Bankolé and M. Emmet Walsh help broaden the community in ways that feel authentic to any small-town’s constituency. The only bum note, initially, appears to be Dylan Moran’s priggish rich boy, and a sequence involving a painting feels heavy-handed and out of place in so deft a movie. Even this, however, is redeemed at the eleventh hour as, like O’Dowd, Moran is afforded an opportunity to add texture to the character.
Everyone, however, plays second fiddle to Gleeson who has never been better than he is here, relishing the opportunity to create a completely-rounded character in a mold so commonly used to present mere caricature.
Working more strictly within dramatic terms seems to have upped McDonagh’s game as a director. In achieving the desired tone, he has made Calvary a decidedly more cinematic film than The Guard ever seemed to be striving for. This film is, aside from anything else, frequently beautiful to look at, and not just when we’re drifting between days with shots to make the Irish tourism board swoon. While rarely showy, the work here still manages to impress continuously.
If there’s a downside to the film, it is that such poignancy and introspection might not be exactly the experience all viewers are expecting, or particularly seeking. This extra dimension was a pleasant surprise to this audience member, but it also makes Calvary a tough film to love, and it’s not likely to draw as many people back time and again as The Guard seems to.
There are occasional moments when it feels a little too filled with its own importance, when Patrick Cassidy’s otherwise graceful score strives too loudly to direct our responses. Happily though these are few and far between. More commonly the film sustains a sombre elegance, dappled mercifully with enough comic glee to dispel the darker clouds the roil about Lavelle’s dogged brow.
Quietly, sneakily, McDonagh has presented us a thought-provoking film that feels less like a sermon and more like a conversation.