Re:View – ‘Calvary’
It took me a while to get to John Michael McDonagh’s second film because it vanished from my local cinema after a week, but having enjoyed ‘The Guard’ (and his brother’s ‘In Bruges’) I eventually arrived at it on video, where I hope it will find a large audience. The reviews (particularly among those who like their religion sentimentalised) were mixed, probably because this is an astringent to the mawkish touchy-feely approach of ‘God Is Not Dead’.
But there’s something else cinema critics tend to dislike, which is any hint of theatricality, and both brothers specialise in theatrical set-ups for their stories. Indeed, ‘Calvary’ takes a meta-fiction approach to its subject, as it contains direct references to its shocking opening line, plotting and characterisation. It uses the references to defuse audience fears about the use of cliche; ‘If you’re thinking it’s a grim version of ‘Father Ted’, we’re already ahead of you’ is the sentiment.
Brendan Gleeson’s stoic priest operates in an underpopulated rural Irish community of archetypes, from a cheerfully cuckolded butcher (Chris O’Dowd), a philandering bored hausfrau, a Cagney-spouting rent-boy, and the arrogant, maddened manor-owner (Dylan Moran). There are social misfits galore, each using Father James as a sounding board for their own sins and failures. The most disturbing member of this extended parish is not the cannibal killer locked away in its jail but the deeply cynical atheist surgeon (Aiden Gillen) who has nothing but contempt for his patients. Nobody here is happy – least of all the American writer (M Emmet Walsh) who is looking forward to the release that death will bring.
Mitigating these dark characters is the good priest’s fragile daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), looking like a young Jane Asher, as she recovers from a botched suicide attempt. In her we come to see her father’s strength of mind.
To unite these strands into a plot, McDonagh has a killer hook; someone in the confessional has informed Father James that he will be killed one week from today, because the sins of Catholic priests must be atoned for by the death of a good man. So the film becomes a western, with a High Noon countdown and the sense that Father James is the last gunfighter – his fellow priests fail to engage and would make better accountants. There are no more left like him.
But the film also has elements of a whodunnit, and there’s plenty of room for sharply scripted black farce – witness Moran proving how rich he is by urinating on Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (possibly a step too far, seeing as it’s hanging in London’s National Gallery). Most of the priest’s encounters with his parishioners unfold in a series of two-handers that could almost be blackout sketches in a theatre – luckily the sweeping grandeur of the Irish coast (how come none of these films ever take place inland?) keeps things nicely cinematic.
Sprouting through the spiky one-liners are enough intelligent theological arguments to fill half a dozen films. This is what makes the movie so Irish – I have never visited any other country in the world where so many people want to discuss religion from an intellectual standpoint. The enemy in ‘Calvary’ isn’t religion or the presence of evil, but the growing sense of apathy that threatens to engulf the priest himself.
The film isn’t perfect – Father James’s choice is logical but not entirely fathomable – but it’s a thoughtful, beautifully realised film with a towering central performance, and it deserves far wider attention than the conservative fantasies usually projected onto this genre.