Dir. John Michael McDonagh
Calvary is director John Michael McDonagh’s latest yarn of cynicism, black comedy and reflection on the nature of the human spirit.
Set in rural Ireland, it has been crafted in much the same framework as McDonagh’s 011 release The Guard, and this, unsurprisingly, turns out to be no bad thing. Like a spiritual sequel of sorts, Calvary delivers more of The Guard’s laughs and characters (Brendan Gleeson again takes the lead role), but at a largely enjoyable walking pace, giving us more time to reflect on the director’s flavoursome brand of pub philosophy.
The film follows a not-quite ordinary week in the life of Father James (played by Brendan Gleeson). In a captivating opening scene we are both introduced to our lovable parishioner and warned of his fate. An unidentified victim of abuse makes a confession with a twist; telling the good father that he plans to murder him next Sunday in order to get his poetic revenge on the Catholic Church.
From the off we’re lead to expect a typical ‘whodunnit’ (or in this case a ‘whosegonnadoit’) detective story. What we get is something entirely different. Instead of being taken on a priestly investigation of the local laity we are encouraged to sit back and immerse ourselves in the day-to- day life of our priestly protagonist.
This is the film’s greatest asset and at times its sole weakness. By giving us time to get to know the everyday world of the good Father we are witness to some intriguing (and often hilarious) characters and their opinions on life, death, and sin, via their conversations with the loveable priest. This unsurprisingly makes the movie very much a character piece and, fortunately, everyone turns up: from the oddball writer to the gay atheist ex-policeman to the chronically depressed ex-banker. In the film’s 100-minute span we enjoy getting to know each of them intimately.
This is done pretty much exclusively via the conversations they hold with Father James. Indeed, throughout the feature there’s barely a moment when Gleeson is not onscreen having a philosophical chat with some local rogue.
Hence the film often feels like a stage play; giving us no real feel of the world outside our priest’s little town and its pantomime characters.
Nevertheless, a stellar script and equally brilliant performances (particularly noteworthy are Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd) ultimately give the piece a commendable amount of cinematic character.
Calvary then, is best regarded a unique detective movie. It builds momentum towards its well-rounded conclusion as we build an understanding of our protagonist’s world, not as we develop an inkling of who the potential killer may be.
Though, as good as it is, one will likely come away wishing slightly more ‘stuff’ could have happened in between the undeniably brilliant bouts of pub philosophy.