Calvary is director John McDonagh’s accomplished follow up to the highly entertaining international success - The Guard. This is an inspired Irish mystery story about a benevolent priest tormented by the comically twisted members of his small community. In essence, it is a whodunnit with a twist - we are given the date for a murder and than introduced to the suspects. Grounded by a superb performance from Brendan Gleeson as the tough minded priest in peril, this movie may not achieve the success of The Guard but it stands out for me as the best Irish one I have ever seen. This movie is more subdued and darker - it offers an insight into the persistence of religious faith in the Catholic Church despite the horrendous legacy of abuse and is sure to have phenomenal success both in Ireland and beyond.
The film begins with a virtuous priest - Father James (Brendan Gleeson) - in the confession box, listening to an unexpected visitor who announces that he was savagely molested as an altar boy for five years. He is determined to exact his revenge and now this unseen man is going to kill a good person for no good reason. In fact, he’s going to kill the kind and altruistic Father James, just for ironic kicks and because he is innocent! The killing has been set for the next Sunday, exactly one week later, leaving the priest just 1 week to uncover who is out to murder him.
Father James is shaken but rather than making any hasty decisions, he mediates on his dilemma while tending to the members of his community. He goes around the rural village of Sligo where he finds a very odd, bawdy, eccentric parish – arsonists, adulterers, drug users and domestic abusers live in close proximity. Despite attending regular mass, its habitants are still bitter, angry and indifferent – each harbouring dark secrets. In this crumbling town, each parishioner seems equally likely to commit murder.
Along the way we meet the boisterous butcher (Chris O’Dowd) who is sick of his adulterous wife (Orla O’Rourke) who keeps getting beaten by her boyfriends. There’s also a vaguely sinister police inspector (Gary Lydon) whom the priest interrupts with a saucy male prostitute (Owen Sharpe). The devilish doctor (Aidan Gillen) is a depraved cynic who makes no secret of his violently disturbed Athiest views, an extravagantly wealthy banker (Dylan Moran) whose riches have failed to make him a nice person, a sex-starved young man (Killian Scott) considering joining the army and an aged American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) who is counting down the days to his death. Amid the weight of trying to bring hope and succor to his profoundly dysfunctional flock, is the arrival of Father James’ beautiful, insightful but troubled daughter (Kelly Reilly), fresh from a recent suicide attempt. As the film counts down the days to the show down on Sunday, the compassionate but wearying priest begins to slowly lose his spirit and even begins to ponder his own impending death.
Brendan Gleeson gives a terrific, career best performance effortlessly moving from dramatic to comedic. His virtuous priest couldn’t be more different from the surly, drug guzzling police officer he played in The Guard, yet both characters are intense, fearless and determined to fulfill their duty to the very end. At the same time, he is no saint – he can be sarcastic, has a weakness for booze and finds himself questioning his beliefs in a God that allows such unspeakable, horrific acts occur every day? The ensemble cast is also superb and anchor the film to the end.
Calvary is a darkly black comedy which never loses its focus and cleverly shows how the sex crimes and abuses of the Catholic Church will have a lasting legacy. It cleverly takes an idiosyncratic yet compassionate look at human nature. However, while the The Guard was a straightforward comedy, Calvary resonates more deeply and becomes notably less humorous as it moves towards the conclusion. This shift in tone is both emotional and moving. I also thought it was visually and technically excellent and great use was made of the rugged and picturesque Irish landscapes – the Sligo seashore, the sculpted cliffs and colourful fields. The photography captures the sombre, silent mood and intense atmosphere as did the use of an appropriately melancholic score. This is an inventive and memorable movie, one which I found both captivating and profound. While the glum tone might not appeal to everyone, I have no doubt it will have a considerable fanbase - particularly in Ireland.