Calvary

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

John Michael McDonagh

Starring

Brendan Gleeson Kelly Reilly

Anticipation.

John Michael McDonagh’s debut, The Guard, was a frisky thriller, if not quite fully-formed.

Enjoyment.

Its sensitivity and even-handedness make this a heart-wrenching joy to behold.

In Retrospect.

A knock-out. Works like gangbusters on every level.

The Guard’s Brendan Gleeson and director John Michael McDonagh reunite to deliver one of the year’s best films.

The battle between fervent religiosity and intense, common-sense atheism rages in a small County Sligo coastal village as the local priest (Brendan Gleeson’s Father James) is politely informed — in the confession box, no less — that he has seven days to live. Like an elongated episode of Father Ted with the intellectual rigour of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, director John Michael McDonagh’s extraordinary film presents deep existential torment under the guise of a parochial murder mystery.

The audience are not shown the face of the murderer-in-waiting, but this is nothing more than a narrative red herring. McDonagh has no interest in cultivating a superficial mystery, instead employing this situation as a platform to explore the metaphysical conundrums of life in the modern priesthood and in turn creating a noir-tinged Celtic western of incredible substance, rich nuance and heightened drama.

McDonagh’s writing and direction here are exemplary, as each of the eccentric side players — some potential murder suspects — emerges as rounded, unpredictable, memorable and humane. They also represent some of the toughest challenges to the tenets of Catholicism today, from sexual rootlessness and ingrained racism through to the morality of war and the consolations of money.

There’s even a miracle, too, in the form of Gleeson’s monumental central performance. His hapless holyman, refusing to let his apparently inevitable demise dent his unerring duty to the compassionate life, recalls the unsmiling melancholy and grizzled world-weariness of Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. His strange acceptance of his fate even signals a dedication to faith that perhaps transcends the physical world. Or could it possibly be a man finally being off ered the prospect of sweet relief?

Among the numerous knock-out two-hander scenes, the film’s greatest triumph is a sub-plot involving James and his semi-estranged/suicidally depressed daughter played by Kelly Reilly. The gruelling details of her situation exacerbate the significance of his fate, imbuing his proclamations of solace with something of a hollow core. But the subtle interactions between the pair paint a long and turbulent history with minimal recourse to direct exposition. McDonagh seldom resorts to banal plot mechanics, opting instead for hardboiled discourse which channels the film’s themes by stealth. Rather than the unfolding of the plot, it is the process of watching people in deep, detailed conversation that provides Calvary’s simplest pleasure.

Yet just as the dialogue attacks its subject through indirect means, Calvary is more than a blunt treatise on devotion versus atheism. During his various showdowns, Gleeson’s priest rarely cites scripture as a moral precedent, attempting to operate as a counsellor who realises that a meaningful emotional connection can only be forged through discourse removed from any of the Bible’s antiquated or haughty notions. But McDonagh is nothing if not even-handed, and he has made a film which gets to the heart of what it means to hold religious values in the 21st century. This is not a blind faith in magic and miracles or the opportunity to administer life lessons to your fellow man, but as a human conduit for empathy.

Published 10 Apr 2014

Tags: John Michael McDonagh

Anticipation.

John Michael McDonagh’s debut, The Guard, was a frisky thriller, if not quite fully-formed.

Enjoyment.

Its sensitivity and even-handedness make this a heart-wrenching joy to behold.

In Retrospect.

A knock-out. Works like gangbusters on every level.

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