Release Date: April 11th, 2014 (UK); August 1st, 2014 (US)
Genre: Comedy; Drama
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen
John Michael McDonagh’s second venture into the directorial settee is a significant improvement on his fun but ultimately forgettable 2011 debut The Guard. In Calvary, many previously utilised elements are retained — namely Brendan Gleeson, dark comedic undertones and Ireland — but an additional steadfast formula heralding both intrigue and earnestness offers robust support to these familiarities. This time around we’re essentially presented with the makings of a whodunit mystery, only nothing has been ‘done’ yet. It’s a ploy that keeps you guessing, one that forges with bleak humour and traces of hearty emotion (just about) resultantly presenting a film worthy of the talent displayed on-screen and the guile emitted from those off-screen.
As one of the more considerate residents of Sligo, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) often finds himself at the quarrelsome mercy of those whose problems determine their lives. His priesthood is undoubtedly a factor in this invariable trust too, only said profession is one James mightn’t be too fond of presently given his life has just been threatened by a troubled voice emanating from the other side of a confession booth. “Sunday week” is seemingly his final calling, because that way he’ll have a few days to get his affairs in order. How thoughtful.
Perhaps Calvary’s greatest strength is that it manages to successfully fluctuate between a variety of modes without losing its primary sense of direction. Most obvious is the blackly comedic tone that hollowly reverberates throughout proceedings. It should come as no surprise to those well-versed in the work of the McDonagh siblings — brother Martin wrote and directed the wonderfully downbeat In Bruges — that laughs are placed on a pedestal above the occasional murmurings of insensitivity here, but each quip is genuine in nature and far from callous. The film is akin to a live-action version of Guess Who? as numerous distinct personifications manifest on screen. At one point James is informed, “Playing you though now, that might be interesting,” enforcing this odd feeling of different characters role-playing. Many of the actors are funny in their caricature mannerisms, but there are a few who especially stand out by way of effortlessly humorous portrayals. Killian Scott is particularly amusing as the naive Milo, his stoic facial expressions accentuating a comical deadpan delivery (“The war on terror has no borders”). The ignorant doctor of Sligo, Frank Harte is gauged efficiently by Aidan Gillen; funny, intimating and overtly suspicious all in equal measure.
Brendan Gleeson carries the weight of the film upon his shoulders for its entirety (the camera hardly wanders from his bearded jawline) and evokes a sense of attachment in tandem with the viewer from the get-go. It’s not necessarily sympathy that we feel — James peculiarly appears in control of his own destiny despite the threat on his life — but rather it is the priest’s accommodating presence to those around him that warmly rubs off on us with an amiable sheen. Aside from the comedy then, is a story about a man attempting to come to terms with his profession, his faith and effectively his own life. James is unable to assemble the frantic thoughts racing through his own head never mind those of others, yet he still tries: “Everything’s fine”, he says almost systematically before realising his own desperate predicament, “I mean no, everything’s not fine”.
As the film progresses director John Michael McDonagh raises the currently prominent issue of priesthood stigma, motioning towards prejudgement and the idea of tarring all with the sins of a few — we become more aware of James as a human being, somebody dealing with more problems than any it seems. A notably poignant scene towards the fraught conclusion embodies the sentiment of forgiveness and wholly captures a sincerely heartfelt air that McDonagh absolutely appears to have intentionally sought out. Calvary exhibits a serious tone that never becomes overbearing thanks largely to a number of chuckle-worthy happenings, but a serious tone that demands consideration nonetheless.
The third side of Calvary’s narrative triangle is the aforementioned murder mystery element, and it too meshes well with the other components. From the exceedingly off-kilter opening, the film garners intrigue as a tension builds. There are constant references to sinning, to death and wrong-doing, remarks almost always aimed indirectly at James (“Evil thoughts floating around”). These serve as frequent reminders amongst the raft of humour and seriousness that there is a conundrum demanding solution. Though some characters occupy characteristics too obvious to be genuinely threatening, McDonagh’s dialogue-driven plot ensures that just about anybody could be the instigator of violence. Maybe the knife-wielder is Dylan Moran’s upper-class hedonist Fitzgerald, or perhaps it is Kelly Reilly’s distressed Fiona Lavelle who has her hand on the trigger — there are more than enough candidates offered up to consistently make us doubt ourselves as we attempt to play detective alongside Father James. One thing is for sure: as wide-shots of vast drumlins are shown leering over the town of Sligo, a progressively uneasy mentality begins to unfairly haunt our lead.
After an exceedingly well-executed hour and a half that sufficiently garners enough pent-up curiosity, Calvary does sadly struggle to keep a lid on proceedings during the final act. Events come across as slightly rushed without meaningful conviction, and one or two questions remain unanswered — though not in a self-inquisitive way, but rather completely unnecessarily.
With the exception of a far from catastrophic concluding blot, Calvary admirably manages to juggle humour, intrigue and seriousness without compromising any element. Presently, after the completion of two native outings, John Michael McDonagh isn’t all that far from replicating his brother’s In Bruges-esque achievement, a pretty darn good feat in itself.