During a confession the world wary but good-natured Father James Lavelle learns from the source that a member of his congregation was repeatedly molested by a priest throughout his childhood, an injustice which is finally going to be rectified by this person sending a message by killing a good priest, James, in a week’s time. Unsure if this is a serious threat, James goes about getting his family and professional business in order, not such an easy task being that his daughter is suicidal and his congregation distrustful, even hateful, towards the Catholic Church.
The McDonagh siblings, despite a general lack of name recognition, are responsible for some of the most innovative comedies in, not just their native Ireland, but the world, over the last decade.
Martin paved the way with his well received hitman story, In Bruges, but his brother John soon followed with the lesser seen but equally excellent The Guard, both of which co-starred the always reliable Brendan Gleeson.
Where Martin, predictably, moved Stateside and made the interesting curiosity, Seven Psychopaths, a film of similar comedy tones as In Bruges, John has opted to stay in Ireland and shift tones considerably with the exceedingly dark drama that is Calvary.
Now before fans of The Guard (yes, there are at least a few of us) get too worried, Calvary does have thick strands of pitch black comedy, but don’t be mistaken, it also gets as serious as any drama you’re likely to see now or ever, and I doubt there will be a more interesting or original drama this year.
John McDonagh can’t be said to be the most aesthetically orientated director, quite the opposite in fact, he tends to make those rural Irish locations that he likes to shoot look decidedly ugly; nor does he rely on tricky camerawork, no, his real skills lie more in his writing, able to take well trodden ground and add numerous interesting twists to whatever genre/story type he chooses to work in, but most important is his ability to craft characters of wonderful and endless nuance and depth, where others would settle for blander stereotypes to populate and drive their story.
Where The Guard had a foul-mouthed, good time having, Columbo-like police officer as its lead, Calvary has an upbeat Priest of good sense and scathing wit, who got into the life in his middle-age following a personal tragedy, so is well aware of the outside world’s perception of his position and beliefs.
Putting this character in a position of impending death, surrounding him with cynical/weak/nasty/friendly characters and throwing in some more recent family tragedy, not only tests his faith, but his faith in people, which though maudlin sounding actually culminates in edge of your seat interest. You could watch these characters talk about any old stuff all day.
But you can add to this an element of mystery, because although our good priest knows who has threatened his life, we the audience never find out until the end, so all the locals that James encounters and tries to help over the course of this long week hold sinister potential in every single scene, suspicion jumping from character to character at McDonagh’s will. It’s a heady mix that is utterly enthralling but not as bleak as you might think, or, in fact, as it should be.
Brendan Gleeson knocks it out of the park in the lead, adding even more depth to this remarkably written character, but the rest of the cast, which includes British, Irish and American actors such as Aidan Gillen, Kelly Reilly, M. Emmett Walsh, Chris O’Dowd and Dylan Moran, hold their own with gusto, introducing tragedy and levity in equal measure.
Calvary didn’t do too well theatrically here in the UK, but hopefully it’ll find its audience out there in the big, wide world, it well deserves it. With its incredibly dark themes and steady pace it might not be to everyone’s tastes, but fans of mature films and excellent writing and acting need to seek it out or they will be missing one of the best dramas of the year.
A grade – for originality
A grade – for storytelling
A- grade – for acting
C grade – for visuals
Overall grade – B+