Review: Calvary (2014)

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Director: John Michael McDonagh
Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh & Domhnall Gleeson
Runtime: 100 min // Certificate: 15

You have to wonder what it must have been like to grow up in the McDonagh household because both John Michael and his brother, Martin, appear to have developed an insatiable obsession with human darkness and, no matter how much humorous gloss they coat their films with, there’s no denying they both love getting down and dirty in the wretched depths of man’s suffering, misery and hatred. I guess that must be why I love both of their films so much…

Calvary – John Michael McDonagh’s latest effort – is no exception to this trend, and in fact might be the starkest example of it to date. It follows Father James Lavelle (Gleeson), a decent priest who has lost the respect of his congregation through no fault of his own, in what threatens to be the final week of his life. After a member of his flock who was abused as a child informs him that he is going to kill him in one week’s time, James goes about his life as ordinarily as he can. He refuses to reveal the man’s identity to the police as he believes wholeheartedly in the confessional’s sacrosanctity and so, in what might well be his final week on Earth, he decides to get his house in order. He attempts to help his suicidal daughter, Fiona (Reilly), through her complex issues, provide guidance to a seemingly loathsome and vapid estate owner and ex-bankster, Michael (Moran), give comfort to a dying old man (Walsh), and reach out to a group of people in his village who see him as the face of the Catholic Church and, as such, hold him responsible for the controversies that have helped to run its reputation into the dirt in recent years.

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Perhaps what’s most striking about Calvary is the theatricality of it all. I don’t mean that as a slur – far from it, it works exceptionally well – but the film is full of characters that have but a minor footing in reality. With the exception of James, Fiona and the abuse victim, the characters are all heightened and exaggerated, primarily to stress the film’s dark comic undertones but also to make a pertinent point about the miserable state of the Catholic Church in modern-day Ireland. Each of them represents a characteristic of modern-life that the Catholic Church has failed to adapt to. We have the Doctor, who hates the Church for the false hope it gives people, the flamboyant homosexual who does his best to make James feel uncomfortable, the promiscuous young woman who seems genuinely happy to be known as the “village bike”, and the struggling barman who sees the Church’s wealth as the most repugnant sign of its rampant hypocrisy. No matter how much James tries to reach out to them, he is quickly becoming an anachronism in his own community.

This “theatricality” also allows for a fierce blend of genres. Calvary deals, primarily, in a combination of tragedy, drama and gallows humour. The tonal conflict between scenes – some of which follow on immediately from one another – can be a bit jarring to begin with, but once McDonagh gets into his stride it all slots into place rather exquisitely. The jokes are dark, and they’re often intertwined with some moments of fearless, harrowing drama, which can make the audience feel rather uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I can safely say I laughed through pretty much all of Calvary (yes, even the sequence in the confessional at the start), which to me is the clearest possible sign that McDonagh has done his job; he’s got you to think about awful issues with some quite varied comedy. There’s the dry cynicism of James and his congregation, the ludicrous nature of the situation itself, the slapstick, typical “Irish humour” and a few offensive but hilarious diatribes, all thrown into the comic blender to create a film rich in bittersweet amusement.

The final element of the film – the “whodunit” (or, rather, “who’s gonna do it”) – is, for the most part, a sideshow. This isn’t a film about a man with a week to live, but one about a man whose relevance to his community is increasingly diminished, yet one to who people still turn when at their most desperate and needy. The Catholic Church is – as you might expect – the main target, though the film is more universal than that. It’s a film about family and loyalty, and one to which we can all relate on some level. Gleeson’s James displays great stoicism in the face of ridicule and, in some case, outright perfidy from members of his own community. He is a lone man and, as such, he becomes the scapegoat for the evils of his masters. It doesn’t matter that he’s a priest – what matters is that he is the feint through which people can vent their anger.

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See, in McDonagh’s cynical but accurate view, the straw that broke the camel’s back wasn’t the rampant abuse, the anti-abortionism, the illegal sale of children, the prevalence of science or the homophobia, but the recent financial crisis; that is what saw the Irish abandon the Catholic Church in their droves. James – an honest, decent, frugal man – is this town’s representative of that church and so he feels the brunt of its irrelevance. That’s the film’s beating heart and the thread that makes it so relatable; James is just a man trying to make up for a problem that isn’t his fault, yet still he feels an obligation to do so. His would be assassin makes that very point right at the start; there’s nothing to be gained from killing a bad priest, but killing a good one? That’s news. That’s a shock to the system.

Calvary isn’t perfect. Sometimes the tonal contradictions are a bit poorly handled, and though the ending is immensely satisfying – in the sense that all the loose-ends are tied up as sufficiently as they need to be – there’s a certain aimlessness to it all. It’s like McDonagh wants to make his points, does so, and then isn’t quite sure what to do. Nonetheless, all of these problems are all but eradicated by the array of stellar performances from the cast. Brendan Gleeson is spectacular as James. He’s always been an engaging screen presence in whatever he does but his work here is a total masterclass. His scenes with Kelly Reilly are perhaps the film’s strongest, as they allow Gleeson to really get inside his character’s sensitive mind and show us what he’s made of, but for the entire runtime Gleeson holds the film on his shoulders. He’s dry, witty and devastating. Aided by some surprisingly sterling dramatic turns from people like Dylan Moran and Chris O’Dowd, Gleeson is the heart and soul of this wonderful, tragic and scathing film.

If you like you’re dark comedy, intense drama and confident social commentary, you can’t go far wrong with Calvary. McDonagh’s film is beautifully shot, intelligently written and deeply engaging, even when it doesn’t all hold together quite as tightly as you might like it to. It’s a very different beast to his previous film, The Guard, but it contains all of the elements that made that film so great and then some. My expectations were high and McDonagh didn’t just meet them, he also exceeded them. It’s Irish cinema (a “genre” I recently praised to the high heavens) at its finest and, if you can find a cinema that’s showing it, you absolutely need to give it a watch.

★★★★

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