Oh blasé moviegoer, when was the last time that you walked out of a cinema feeling well and truly rattled by what you had just seen? Such a rare experience, delivered with Oscar-worthy punch by the man who may well be Ireland’s greatest living actor, Brendan Gleeson, is available right now in the form of Calvary, and it ought not to be missed.
Calvary constitutes the middle third of a planned trilogy by John Michael McDonagh, an English-born director of Irish descent, that began with 2011’s much-lauded The Guard. All three will star Gleeson, though he plays different characters in each; the final installment, The Lame Shall Enter First is currently in development. Together they should irrevocably cement the actor’s reputation as a major international star, and not just that kilted sidekick to Mel Gibson in Braveheart or the paranoid dark-wizard-hunter Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter flicks. Gleeson is a consummate artist who deserves our serious attention, and after Calvary I have a feeling that he’ll finally get it.
Calvary is a dark, disturbing, powerful work, a contemporary film noir set against the dramatic rural beauty of County Sligo, whose coastline is as crumpled and craggy as its protagonist’s exquisitely expressive face. Gleeson portrays Father James, a good priest enduring bad times for the Catholic Church – a man who received his calling late in life after fathering a daughter, battling the demons of alcoholism and trying to make some sense of his wife’s suicide. He keeps his personal piety fairly private, invoking the name of Christ and the Ten Commandments only once in the story: when he is trying to talk a socially awkward young man (Killian Scott) out of joining the army as an outlet for his repressed rage against women. But Father James takes his pastoral counseling responsibilities very seriously indeed, laboring thanklessly to alleviate the despair, hostility and alienation felt by his parishioners at a time when the Irish economy is in a tailspin and revelations of sexual abuse by priests – and subsequent cover-ups by the Church hierarchy – recur with depressing regularity.
It’s an uphill battle that intensifies by several orders of magnitude after an unnamed parishioner tells Father James in the confessional that the priest has one week left to live: The man plans to kill him as a sort of collective revenge against the Church because he was sexually assaulted as a young boy by a priest now deceased. We quickly deduce that Father James knows the identity of his would-be hitman (though the audience does not), but he decides not to divulge that information even after being offered dispensation from the usual rules of the confessional by his bishop. Instead he uses what may be his last week on Earth to give the killer one last shot at self-redemption, to try one more time to untie some of the knots in the lives of his miserable flock and to break down some of the emotional barriers between himself and his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who has recently made a halfhearted attempt at suicide herself.
His priestly rounds set the stage for a whodunit parade of likely murderer candidates; everyone in the parish has a new gripe or an old grudge, and nearly all seem to have a screw loose. Backing Gleeson is a splendid ensemble of mostly Irish actors playing the sordid assortment with relish and sharp individuality. No one seems to have an intact marriage; when Father James tries to ascertain whether the town butcher (Chris O’Dowd) is responsible for the black eye that his wife (Orla O’Rourke) showed up with in church on Sunday, he quickly ascertains that said wife is openly having an affair with an African immigrant mechanic (Isaach de Bankolé). The town’s jaded police inspector (Gary Lydon) cannot be consulted privately because his home has been more or less commandeered by a blustering gay prostitute (Owen Sharp, the one weak point in the cast). The local publican (Pat Shortt) is furious because the bank is foreclosing on his mortgage, and the local banker (Dylan Moran) has lost interest in life since his dicey lending practices were exposed.
Then there’s a cynical doctor who’s the town’s cocaine supplier (Aidan Gillen, better-known as the slimy schemer Littlefinger on Game of Thrones) and the psychotic young former parishioner who’s now in prison for serial murder (Gleeson’s son Domhnaill). The only person in the bunch who seems reasonably decent is a frail, elderly American writer (M. Emmet Walsh), and he just wants Father James to procure him a gun so that he can do himself in before he loses his faculties. The parish’s assistant priest (David Wilmot) has, in Father James’s words, “no integrity” and proves generally useless except in his eagerness to accept donations.
The pastor perceives that all these people need help, and keeps trying to offer it to them even while they make him the scapegoat for their every beef with the Church that has so disappointed them (and in several cases, directly abused them). The butcher’s bored wife finds it amusing to hit on the priest just to make him squirm; the innkeeper wants to know why the Church doesn’t hold predatory bankers to account for their sins. Father James’s personal Calvary is being punished for the sins of the institution that he represents, along with those of his all-too-human charges.
Sounds grim, doesn’t it? But the horrors of human nature revealed as Calvary peels back the quaint and cheery veneer of Irish society are mitigated by a sweet philosophical encounter with a Frenchwoman to whose husband Father James administers last rites after an auto wreck; the widow’s unshaken faith in both God and humankind shames the priest’s obsession with his own internal crisis. And the movie’s overall dark tone is frequently leavened by the sort of graveyard humor at which the Irish literati have long excelled. It’s a bitter and ironic sort of laughter, but laugh you will – sometimes loudly.
Calvary begs comparison with another recent movie inspired by the Catholic Church’s social abuses, and at first glance it does seem like Philomena’s grittier flip side. But though it is less immediately apparent in Calvary, the theme of forgiveness is as intrinsic to its terrible tale as it is to Judi Dench’s somewhat more upbeat vehicle. You likely won’t see Ireland quite the same way after watching it; but you will see more nuance in the malleable role of the Church, for good or ill, in its rapidly changing society. The character who tells Father James that his kind’s days are done may be right; but the need for good listeners and good counselors will never go away.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.