Writer/director John Michael McDonagh and actor Brendan Gleeson last got together on 2011 movie The Guard. That film was a comedy about a very unorthodox Galway policeman being paired up with an upright FBI agent on a drugs case. It was dark but very funny in a similar way to In Bruge, which was directed by McDonagh’s playwright brother Martin. As it happens, the characters Gleeson played in both of those films were not a million miles away from one another either. Both were men with dubious morals just trying to get through the job with minimum hassle. Watching the trailer for Calvary, you get the impression you are going to see something else with the same sort of tone; a blackly funny film finding the humour in randomly violent situations.
This is not that kind of film at all though.
The first scene of Calvary featured heavily in the trailer as it quickly gives the set up of the film. Gleeson’s Catholic priest sits in the confession box and listens as one of his parishioners tells him he is going to kill him. Not because he is a bad priest but because he is a good one. There would be nothing shocking in killing a bad priest. ‘I’ll give you time to get your affairs in order though’, he says. ‘How about a week next Sunday?’ After a moments silence, the camera all the while on Gleeson’s face, the voice asks ‘have you nothing to say to me father?’ ‘No’ replies Gleeson ‘but I’m sure I will by a week next Sunday.’ It’s played for chuckles in the trailer but the promo only gives an edited version of the conversation that plays in the full film. What you don’t hear is the mystery man explain why he is threatening the priest, you don’t hear the heart breaking account of how as a boy he suffered serial rape at the hands of a now dead catholic minister. The scene is clearly not so amusing when you see it played out in its entirety. Still, no matter what you might expect it to be, funny or straight, Calvary is a brilliant and rewarding film.
What we get is a whodunit before the crime is committed. After the threat on his life Gleeson’s priest goes about his week, working with the people in the town. He knows who has threatened him but we don’t and it is not unlike the TV show Broadchurch in that everyone is potentially set up as the criminal. The people that surround Gleeson are all highly unlikable characters. You have the unabashedly promiscuous woman, the slightly psychotic young man, the ineffectual police officer, the inept junior priest, the intimidating mechanic, the amoral rich business man, the self absorbed geriatric, the socially uncomfortable butcher, the macabre doctor and the insincere landlord. The only real exception to this gallery of grotesques is the priest’s daughter who has some stereotypical problems of her own but is played very sympathetically by Kelly Reilly.
Most of the townsfolk then are clearly caricatures. There is even an evil serial killer in the mix (played by Gleeson’s real life son Domhnall) which in some respects seems a narrative leap too far but I think all of this is quite deliberate. The director is not going for social realism as much as he is painting a broad picture of society. McDonagh has created two believable characters in the priest and his daughter and that is enough for us to engage with the story emotionally. Everyone else is there to represent the sins of the world at large and anyway, the film isn’t concerned with being true to life, it has bigger themes to fry.
Those of you with any kind of church background will of course know that Calvary is the name of the place where Jesus was crucified. Fantasy cinema has given us several Christ metaphors over the years with Superman, E.T, Gandalf and Neo but some of these were handled in a pretty clumsy manner. Here it works perfectly as the priest is set up to be sacrificed for the transgressions of others. It is not humanity who’s trespasses are to be forgiven though, in this case it is the church’s.
The film raises interesting questions about the position of Catholicism in modern society and quite clearly asks whether it is appropriate to hold individual ministers to account for all the paedophilia scandals. Certainly any right thinking person would never accuse all Muslim priests of supporting and endorsing terrorism but some still write off many Catholic priests for the crimes of the few.
Father James is a good man, certainly compared to the rest of the town, but he is treated with a level of righteous indignation reserved especially for him because of what his mantel has come to represent. There is also an examination of how people react to the crimes that affect them personally compared to those (often worse) acts of indecency and violence that we can detach ourselves from. All of this elevates the film high above its occasional soap opera plotting.
There are moments of levity in the film, jokes even, but while these can be seen as an awkward contrast to everything else, they just serve to strengthen its impact. There are two particularly broadly drawn characters who seem like they’ve risen from the cutting room floors of Father Ted and Priscilla Queen of the Desert respectively but, in this context, they actually seem quite tragic. I wouldn’t describe Calvary as a comedy as the trailer and reviews have done but it is certainly bittersweet.
More than anything else though, there are four things you will take away from Calvary. The first of these is the incredible Irish landscape. The cliff tops and beaches of County Silgo with the Dartry Mountains in the background are just breathtaking. With this and the neon throbs of Only God Forgives on his CV, cinematographer Larry Smith is someone whose name will soon be found in the credits of much bigger films.
Then there is the music. Patrick Cassidy is a already successful composer with his cantata The Children of Lir staying at the top of the Irish Classical Music Chart for a full year. There are clearly some beautiful themes written by film composers but there is something different about work written for the concert hall rather than the screen. Listening to the music in Calvary I just assumed they’d picked up some well known aria I was not familiar with but it is all original music and Cassidy looks set to retain his reputation as a composer first and someone who writes for films second, like Glass or Prokofiev.
Thirdly we have Mr Brendan Gleeson who is just superb. This isn’t a revelation as he has long been giving great support in films including Harry Potter, Green Zone, Kingdom of Heaven, Troy and Gangs of New York. He has also taken lead roles, as previously mentioned, but in Calvary his portrait of flawed stoicism, patience, fatherliness and compassion is irresistible. I can’t remember the last time I rooted for a character as much which clearly and deliberately makes his situation all the more compelling.
Finally then, we come back to John Michael McDonagh. It isn’t just his script which could have been played very differently if directed by someone else, and it isn’t just how he shoots ugly people and pretty landscapes beautifully. What you really take from this film is how uncompromising it is. The flashes of violence are real and brutal, the situations, both seen and described, are unflinching and the resolution of the film is not without its casualties.
All in all Calvary demands your attention. It is sometimes funny, sometimes tragic but consistently excellent.
The ISWYS Test:
There are three main representations of women in the film and while the roles of adulterer, wife and daughter do not really challenge conventional representations of femininity, Kelly Reilly as the latter is emotionally real and honest.
Is this one for the kids?
Calvary is rated 15 so is clearly not appropriate for young viewers. It is a film that treats violence, loss and mortality realistically. If you are comfortably out the other side of teenage though, you should definitely see it.