Last time Brendan Gleeson and writer-director John Michael McDonagh teamed-up they delivered the delicately comedic The Guard. This time Gleeson and McDonagh maintain a sense of comedic whimsy but go dark, really dark with Calvary and the result is nothing short of a bleak and pitch-black comedy that will have you chuckling and crying in equal measure.
Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest who has his hands full with a fair few tests sent his way. First off his daughter (Kelly Reilly) has just tried to end her life, he’s being asked to help one of his parishioners, an aging writer (M. Emmet Walsh) end his life, his community is rife with sin, from all the big seven and multiple more and finally he has just received a death threat in confession.
A film called Calvary should leave little doubt as to what the grey clouds rolling in across the skyline mean. Named after the place where Christ was crucified, Calvary is a brooding, dark and wonderfully hypnotic look at a town steeped in religion but ultimately ambiguous towards it. While Father James is determined to save his congregation they seem hostile towards his attempts to do so, happy to confess their sins to him but ultimately fully aware that their souls are beyond reproach.
Father James is a good man in a bad world. A man who may have a past he is not proud of but whose faith within the Catholic Church seems to bring with it all manner of assumptions and accusations. He is tested to breaking point but throughout it all he never loses his ability to retain the desperate hope that he can salvage something, anything, from his no win situation.
McDonagh, like his In Bruges directing brother Martin, has a sensational ability to blend insightful and moving characters with a bleak sense of irony and sarcasm. In fact there are clear parallels between Bruges and Calvary, both seemingly stuck in a religious allegory of purgatory. Here John Michael intercuts footage of the startling yet daunting Irish scenery to convey the brooding and foreboding nature that Father James is facing.
It might at times feel reminiscent of Father Ted, especially in the moments between Father James and his second in command, who is simple enough to feel like a more serious Dougal, but at its core Calvary only uses its comedy as a tool in which to briefly alleviate the darkness within.
The performances are all solid, from Dylan Moran’s detestable former banker, Aidan Gillen’s arrogant doctor and Orla O’Rourke’s sultry town bicycle there is always a sense that these people are ingrained in the community and the horizon of the town. Chris O’Dowd refuses to completely shake his comedy shackles but is an always-welcome screen presence. Kelley Reilly has found a great niche of playing broken and achingly adorable strong female characters. But it is Gleeson who is mesmeric once again. His Father James, battling against impossible odds, remains a colossus of gritted determination mixed with just a hint of self-doubt. One scene in particular, shared with his real life son Domhnall Gleeson, who plays a former pupil come killer in prison, is staggering and poignant while Gleeson (the elder) quietly boils as he tries to contain the anger at his former protégé.
Like a perfectly poured pint of Guinness Calvary is a swirl of jet-black liquid with a glimmer of hope desperately rising to the top. On this form McDonagh and Gleeson should be given carte blanche for their next project.