Originally published 2014 | Written by Liam Farrell
Calvary has an admittedly brilliant premise. Father James (Brendan Gleeson), is faced in his confession box with a man who says he was a victim of sex abuse as a child at the hands of a Catholic priest. He tells Father James that he will murder him the following Sunday as a symbolic act of vengeance for his own suffering. However, rather than be a catalyst for the kind of tense thriller that one might imagine, the opening gambit is left unpursued for the most part, serving more as a cross for Gleeson’s character to bear than a driving force of the action.
Instead, the bulk of the film is taken up with Father James wandering around his Sligo parish, conversing with a variety of locals, as the film shifts between broad social critique, satire, and strong doses of grave introspection. This is the film’s central problem: it really can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it wants to be. Is it a character piece about Father James reconciling with his suicidal daughter (played by the conspicuously English-accented Kelly Reilly) and searching for his faith in the face of his oncoming death and a crumbling Church? Is it an acerbic black comedy about the struggles of being a priest in a post-Celtic Tiger society? Or is it a commentary on the ills and excesses of the same society?
The film flirts with each of these ideas but never satisfyingly settles on one. The first avenue would seem the wisest to have followed, given Gleeson’s performance is the film’s strongest suit. Father James is the sort of ‘cool priest’ only found in works of pure fiction, striding around authoritatively in his flowing black cassock while trying to coax people down from their various moral ledges, driving a red convertible and even brandishing a vintage revolver in a handful of scenes. Gleeson has the necessary ability to go between sarcastic sangfroid and raw rage to make this hybrid of Jesus Christ and John Wayne credible, as well as the warmth and sensitivity to humanise him. Calvary is at its best when Gleeson’s character is the one drawing our attention, particularly as the film moves towards its emotional climax.
Unfortunately, Gleeson’s excellent work is offset by the film’s wildly inconsistent tone, and bizarre cast of supporting characters. Calvary seems to regard itself as a grand inquiry into the Ireland of today, a country which lost its way during the excess of the Celtic Tiger and has been reduced to an amoral quagmire in its wake. But the film paints in broad strokes, and the minor characters which inhabit the town seem to be little more than thinly veiled ciphers for one societal trouble or another. Dylan Moran plays the obnoxiously aloof banker with pretensions towards aristocracy, and his scenes may as well be accompanied by the words ‘financial crisis’ being flashed on the screen in giant red block capitals, such is the lack of subtlety with which the subject is approached. Similarly the appearance of Isaach de Bankolé as Simon, the sole non-Irish character, allows the film to flag up the problem of racism, and Aidan Gillen delivers a curiously hammy performance as the sneering, coke-snorting, atheist doctor. Adultery, domestic abuse, and prostitution also rear their ugly heads through various parishioners. In one utterly head-scratching scene Domhnall Gleeson appears as the local convicted cannibal and is subjected to an interrogation from his real-life father on his fantastical crimes. It exemplifies the film’s haphazard approach, one of a number of strange and irrelevant digressions.
The black comedy the film aims for sits uneasily beside the ethical and moral grandstanding, often falling flat. While satire is all well and good, jokes are often crudely inserted into or immediately following key emotional cadences. Scenes dealing with sex abuse are peppered with jokes, and other sequences see grief followed by tasteless humour, muddling up the film’s tone. Calvary expects us to care when characters introduced as comic relief have great spiritual epiphanies in the film’s third act, the objects of ridicule being hastily elevated in an attempt to flesh them out.
Director John Michael McDonagh caused a minor furore a number of months ago by claiming in an interview during the film’s U.S. press tour that Calvary is not, contrary to all appearances, an Irish film. Despite the County Sligo locations playing a huge role in the film’s visual makeup, a majority Irish cast and crew, the partial funding of the film by our own Irish Film Board, and the film picking up a number of awards at this year’s IFTAs, McDonagh has every right to categorise the film as he sees fit. However, his comments raise the question of how the film would have been received had it been made by a foreign film company, without as many Irish ties. Would such a negative depiction of the region have offended Irish viewers? It’s impossible to know, though I would imagine it may have tempered some of the commercial and critical success the Calvary saw overseas.
Calvary often feels like it is ticking off a shopping list whilst throwing topical issues into an already overflowing basket. Despite the didacticism, it never seems like Calvary has anything interesting to say about society beyond merely paying lip service to its dilemmas, with a pervading fatalism its only unifying message. The film is technically well crafted, and a great Brendan Gleeson performance just barely keeps the thing holding together, but the finished product is little more than an overcooked hodgepodge of weighty themes, thin characters, and misplaced humour.