Review: Calvary (Sundance 2014)
PLOT:A kindly Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) is told by a parishioner that in one week, he will be murdered in retaliation for crimes committed by the Catholic Church. Not knowing if the threat is real, the priest tries to put right the many ills of his small Irish community, and reconnect with his daughter (Kelly Reilly) before potentially being murdered.
REVIEW:CALVARY is an especially ambitious effort from writer-director John Michael McDonagh. Having previously directed the darkly comic THE GUARD, his follow-up is a more sombre effort, although it has it's own blend of gallows humor. The difference between comedy and tragedy is thin, and CALVARY may dip its toe in the former, but is mainly concentrated on the later.
Like his last film, CALVARY benefits from a magnificent performance by Brendan Gleeson. His mix of catholic guilt for the crimes of his church, with his deep need to do good and make people's lives better- regardless of whether they're part of his flock or not- is touching. CALVARY is not afraid to tackle the legacy of abuse the church is tainted by, with the opening confessional finding a man telling Gleeson about how he was repeatedly raped by his priest as a child. Father James- who we learn joined the priesthood after the death of his wife- is a truly good priest, albeit flawed, being an absentee father to his loving but troubled daughter, and a recovering alcoholic.
Clearly, McDonagh wants his audience to identify with and love Father James, but it also acknowledges the church's own- often troubled- history in Ireland, with his flock still attending mass regularly despite mostly being disbelievers. They're a gloomy bunch, with particular emphasis on the village butcher (Chris O'Dowd- in a solid dramatic performance) whose wife cheats on him, and a local financial wiz (Dylan Moran from BLACK BOOKS) who finds himself detached from his own white collar crimes and family. Aidan Gillen- from THE WIRE- is especially effective as the local ER physician, whose a die-hard atheist and constantly provokes Gleeson in an attempt to get a rise.
One of the tragic things about CALVARY is that too few priests such as Father James exist. Many conflicts with the catholic church are addressed, including their stance on adultery, suicide and homosexuality, with Gleeson's James being tolerant of all of them. Gleeson's marvellous throughout, particularly opposite Reilly, with whom he shares a believably tender relationship. Reilly's been on a role lately, and her portrayal of the suicidal daughter- honest to a fault with her father- has a tremendously touching payoff. Gleeson's own son, Domhnall, has a great scene opposite his father as a serial killer demanding council. It's a dynamic scene, perfectly acted by father and son.McDonagh's work on CALVARY is truly exceptional, being just about as good as THE GUARD even if it's remarkably different, adopting a quiet vibe as opposed to the raucous GUARD, with gorgeous location cinematography that makes one hope this is seen theatrically. McDonagh is two-for-two with CALVARY and if he was one to watch after his last film, now he's someone who seems pegged for greatness. Certainly, that's what CALVARY suggests.