Calvary (2014)

★★★★

Director: John Michael McDonagh

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.

Philomena (2013)

★★★★

Director: Stephen Frears

Release Date: November 1st, 2013 (UK); November 27th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

It’s not often you watch a drama about the culmination of a woman’s fifty year search for her long lost son, and end up spending a significant amount of time laughing in the wake of an odd comedy duo. Settle down at the mercy of Stephen Frears’ Philomena though, and that’s exactly what’ll happen. At its heartiest the film flows with a sense of uncertain determination embodied in diverging ways by the two lead characters, but in between these moments of bottled up emotion, at its most organic, Philomena charms in tone and entertains by way of a banterous dynamic. This incredible story pitched excellently is often funny, occasionally shocking and always peculiar in believability, even if it does lose some legitimacy at its conclusion.

Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) stares wholesomely into the eyes of a young gentleman pictured inside a piece of jewellery. It’s her son, Anthony, taken fifty years earlier and placed in the care of an American family. Philomena spent her younger years as part of an Irish Abbey, sent there by her disapproving father in a rebuttal to pregnancy. By chance, recently fired Labour government adviser Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is in attendance at a party where he is approached by Philomena’s daughter who pleas to have her mother’s tragic tale exposed to the world. It’s a “human interest story”, or for Martin, a way back into the positive glares of journalistic limelight, and so he embarks on a journey of discovery and hope with Philomena.

At the centre of the film is this weird dynamic shared between Philomena and Martin, one driven by religion and faith (or, in Martin’s case, the lack thereof). Having been forcibly separated from her child in an act of apparent punishment, Philomena retains a staunch belief in God and moreover, treats the present day nuns — of which still includes the prominent Sister Hildegard, who was instrumental in said previous events — with respect and without any incrimination. The horrendous actions undertaken in 1951 are presented in a unsavoury manner, as they should be, by both the film itself and just about every character, from tainted journalist to boisterous pub owner (“What about the evil nuns, what’s happening with them?”). Yet Philomena valiantly, admirably, stands by her beliefs and wholly practices the forgiving teachings, ensuring the narrative never plumbs over into anti-Catholic territory.

On the other hand, Martin embodies the typical cynical reporter. He spends half of the time answering his elderly associate’s questions about believing in God (“No”) and the other half truly puzzled by Philomena’s strong-willed demeanour. The journalist, who experiences a moral realignment himself as the film canters on, publicly denounces Philomena’s inbuilt faith having never sincerely lived it — although he was an alter boy once upon a time.

These quizzical debates between the pair provide the catalyst for the film’s good-humoured underbelly. That, in tow with the chuckle-worthy “little old Irish lady” and business-like, trying-to-reignite-him-career journalist, together in America, heralds a jesty atmosphere. The pair are outwardly mismatched, yet they share an intrinsic desire to reclaim a significant loss in their respective lives. For Philomena it’s her son, whereas for Martin it’s his dignity and journalistic aura, which is probably why he constantly contemplates writing a book about Russian history, a cultivated topic if there ever was. His initial detachment broods a condescending resonance towards Philomena, whose fickleness in the face of sarcasm offers a few comedic titbits. While Martin discusses how to approach divulging the story with his callous editor, Philomena amazes over the “the size of the portions!” in America, claiming she always worried about her son’s weight. While fully endorsing laughter, director Stephen Frears never marginalises his at times serious approach to the subject matter, without which the film would lose authenticity given the harrowing happenings occurred in real life, as part of Philomena Lee’s actual existence. A healthy balance is essential, and Frears achieves one.

Our two main protagonists are, in essence, conventional characters — a dour, disenfranchised reporter and an energetic-yet-inconstant wee Irish lady — but given the film is based on a true story, on genuine people, it is right that these characters should be conventional to a degree. That way they are recognisable and relatable, in turn evoking emotion from the audience. Judi Dench is wonderful as Philomena, humming the full dramatic spectrum in the process. She exhibits an ardent perseverance, the same kind that any mother would typify in a search for her child. However, at the same time she always carries that homely quality, a charming awkwardness in a world far bigger than and increasingly alien to her. As Martin Sixsmith, Steve Coogan is the perfect folly, boasting a very valid ‘been there, done that’ attitude. Unlike Dench whose character is a straight-shooter from the off, Coogan often has to reign in his thoughts (probably for fear of a skelp from his elder) as he gradually warms towards Philomena, instantaneously to the audience directing a growing fondness in the direction of Martin and his changing intentions.

Along with Jeff Pope, Steve Coogan brilliantly co-wrote the screenplay based on Martin Sixsmith’s book The Long Lost Child of Philomena Lee. The duo do an exemplary job in adapting book to the screen, a traverse that facilitates this witty, emotionally-tugging film. Nevertheless, there is a problem that arises near the very climax, one captured and dragged by the notion of dramatic licence. Dramatic licence, a function utilised by the industry’s best, creates tension where there may be none, or sprinkles a share of humour if it sorely lacks. In the case of Philomena, the dramatic licence becomes problematic because it goes beyond these constructed trivialities. There is a fabricated scene approaching the conclusion that is designed specifically to be a blow-off moment for Martin, but that resultantly, sadly, envisions a significant falsity. In a way the film takes an emotional liberty, the same kind that it spends ninety minutes preaching against. A disappointing blemish, but arguably the only one.

Martin Sixsmith, worried about his health, is told to run. This same deed is adhered to by Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, who collectively grab hold of Coogan’s delightful — if a tad tainted towards the end — script and run with it, creating waves of charm and seemingly incompatible comedy in the process. First and foremost though, this is a serious and harrowing story, and Frears ensures that it is treated as such. If you journey purely alongside the happenings on screen, not investigative of the climactic authenticity, Philomena might just tinge those emotions; the laughs and the cries.