Directed by John Michael McDonagh
After being threatened during a confession, a good-natured priest must battle the dark forces closing in around him.
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★★★½ review by Adam Cook on Letterboxd
Those expecting a comedy closer in tone to director John Michael McDonagh’s debut, The Guard, will discover from the startling opening line of dialogue that this is a molasses-black movie - a state of the nation address for a country that has been abused by the institutions of both the church and banks. That’s not to suggest Calvary is not without its humour - it’s dark, witty and sharply written - but this is far from a gag-filled crowd-pleaser.
Calvary is the story of Father James (Brendan Gleeson) who, during confession, discovers one of his congregation will try and kill him in a week’s time as revenge for his abuse at the hands of another priest when he was just a child. As with the title that refers to the crucifixion of Christ, Father James will be punished for the sins of others as he confronts both his own mortality and morality.
Although the audience is unaware of the would-be killer’s identity until the film’s searing showdown McDonagh’s film is no mystery thriller. In fact Father James is fully aware who the man is from the outset. Instead the film explores his final week from his existential quandaries to his eventual acceptance as he gets his house in order whether making peace with his estranged daughter (Kelly Reilly), returning home after a suicide attempt, or offering unheeded guidance to his grotesque congregation.
Despite the film being littered with amusing and frequently absurd moments Calvary remains a melancholic experience. Every character is battling with their own personal demons and at various stages of dealing with their grief. The film is set in a coastal village full of sin with Father James in the middle of a community who each have their reasons to hate and mistrust the Catholic church. He may be a good man (although one still atoning for past mistakes) but he is a symbol of an institution that has often failed the country.
Brendan Gleeson is nothing short of sensational in arguably his finest screen performance to date. Gleeson is one of those rare actors that seems incapable of delivering a poor performance even when some of the films he stars in fail to match his talents. His multi-layered performance as Father James anchors the film whether exploring the touching and tentative relationship with his daughter or during resigned moments with his hopeless and doomed flock.
By contrast his co-stars are a rather mixed bunch. The always underrated Kelly Reilly is excellent as the troubled daughter and Dylan Moran is something of a revelation as a vile banker disconnected from life. Yet there are also jarring missteps with Aidan Gillen now seemingly so confused by accents that he’s forgotten his own whilst Lucky Leo the local rent-boy seemed like he came from a different movie entirely.
The film’s big issue is that for all its thematic interest and strong central performance it can feel rather didactic. McDonagh’s script is full of beautifully written lines yet at times the tone drifts into unwelcome sermonising territory. It may be passionate and angry but it can undermine the more successful moments in the film as the writer-director takes to his soap box one too many times. However, the film’s key moments are superbly handled delivering a thoughtful and emotionally rich experience.
Calvary is a unique, provocative and beautifully shot drama. Not only is it one of the finest films of the year but it is also one of the best films to emerge from Ireland in decades.
★★★★½ review by Filmspotting on Letterboxd
Can't fault anyone turned off by the glibness of CALVARY, that slight sense of caricature and quirk that permeates the parishioners of Father James' (Brendan Gleeson) little Irish village — especially when wrapped in such grimness (revenge, death, sexual abuse). But dammit, doesn't this clash capture the sublime folly of existence?
How do you cope with the darkness, the everyday malaise? These characters, like so many of us, detach via alcohol and sex, or in less self-destructive fashion, lose themselves in books; McDonagh softens the despair with humor. Sometimes all you can do is laugh.
★★★★ review by Eli Hayes on Letterboxd
What an incredibly unique blend of dark comedy and heavily dramatic themes... wow, this is going to take a while to process. Review pending, but I can safely say that I think this'll be one of the top films of 2014. Brendan Gleeson is at the very tip-top of his game... wow...
★★★★★ review by Kevin Wight on Letterboxd
"I was seven years old when I first tasted semen."
This is the startling first line of the nameless man who sits down in the confession box to be heard by Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson). The man goes on to tell of systematic abuse by a now-dead priest. He then tells Fr. James that he will kill him a week on Sunday as he is a good man. Killing a bad priest would be nothing. Killing a good one? That's a statement.
This is the premise behind John Michael McDonagh's follow-up to The Guard. It retains that films dark humour but this is an infinitely more thoughtful and thematically rich work than his debut.
Fr. James is indeed a good man. He is compassionate and thoughtful, with real integrity and attempts to speak to his congregation as real people; not ambulatory sins at whom to dish out meaningless penances. At first glance, the characters that make up his flock are pretty much played for laughs, and it feels like its running the risk of becoming a really twisted episode of Father Ted. McDonagh knows what he's doing though, and as the week goes on, light and shade (mainly shade) begins to emerge and the comedy gives way to something much, much stranger and somber and really quite beautiful.
For all his travails, Fr. James never once questions his faith, which I find interesting. That's not to say there is no character arc, far from it - he's a wonderfully written character and played to perfection by Gleeson. It's a masterclass of understated skill. When he does erupt, it's volcanic and all the more shocking for its suddenness. The obvious question we could ask would be why on Earth he sticks around when he could just get the hell out of Sligo, but this is answered more than satisfactorily.
Perhaps some of his visits in his priestly guise are a little contrived - a trip prison to see Domhnall Gleeson's strangely childlike cannibal murderer is perhaps an obvious way to shoehorn in a correlation between the communion rite and the literal consumption of human flesh - and Aiden Gillan's turn as a mordant hospital nurse is as bafflingly played as his role as Littlefinger in Game of Thrones. The satirical swipes at the likes of bankers are a little unsubtle as well, but I did not care one jot.
There is way too much really, really right with this film to let some minor flaws even begin to spoil my immediate love for it. I love the gradual ebb from broad (albeit jet black) comedy to something really quite tragic and profound. There are loads of excellent turns from the likes of Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran, Chris O'Dowd and Isaach de Bankolé. The central who-is-going-to-do-it? almost ceases to matter as the drama ramps up to a great emotional crescendo; and after a coda that matches Donnie Darko for sheer impact I was left stunned and deeply moved. There was a near minute of absolute silence in the cinema before anyone began to move, so I think I wasn't alone in my reaction.
I think this is a wonderful, wonderful film. I love it unreservedly. And to make it even, even better - I'm bloody certain that there is a nod to McDonagh's brother Martin's In Bruges on the front of a paper Fr. James is reading at one point. Awesome.
★★★★½ review by SilentDawn on Letterboxd
A deafening, calm, and challenging work of character building and complex screenwriting; Calvary is a film that filled me more with admiration than anything else. Brendan Gleeson gives a performance beyond words, and even with so many wonderful performances this year, his work here is the best I've seen in 2014. Overall, in spite of some characters that felt "off", the film as a whole is quite good. However, It definitely isn't one that I will be returning to very often. Don't put you off from seeing it though, its one beautiful film.
Edit: I had to raise the rating, as the film builds in grandeur and emotional power in retrospect. And the statement that I wouldn't be returning to it very often was just tiredness talking, I can't wait to see this again.
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