Director: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Kelly Reilly and Pat Shortt
★★★★ (out of five)
“I FIRST tasted semen when I was seven years old,” are the first words of dialogue in John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, as uttered by a disembodied voice to a discombobulated priest in a darkened church confessional.
“Certainly a startling opening line,” the priest responds, voicing the thoughts of the audience. “Is that supposed to be irony?” the disgruntled confessor asks. “I’m sorry,” the priest says, “let’s start again.”
This introductory exchange sets up the narrative style of McDonagh’s movie, fusing serious commentary with bone-dry satire.
McDonagh –a second-generation Irishman raised in central London - draws characters that spend most of the time conventionally acting out the absorbing drama, yet periodically collapse the artifice with deflating self-references.
They offer oblique winks to camera, breaking the fourth wall and waving across to the viewer. It’s a Brechtian, Beckettian, Bunuelian cocktail of forlorn hope, mordant humour and a cold moral vacuum. Yet all-the-while, it urges us not to have sleepless nights.
It’s also excellent, a cleverly-devised story (if a little thin on plot) featuring fine performances from top Irish talent. The superb Brendan Gleeson leads the cast as the embattled Fr James, vicar to an isolated coastal community, who is informed by one of his flock that he will kill him, “a week on Sunday,” in an abused victim’s revenge upon a depraved Catholic Church.
The man who makes this threat is known to Father James, though he remains a mystery to the audience until the climax.
“I’ll give you enough time to put your house in order,” he generously promises. The rest of the movie invites viewers to guess the identity of the killer among the townsfolk they meet, as the good father tends to his “pastoral duties”.
McDonagh certainly puts up enough contenders for the role of villain, a parade of hedonists, malcontents, neurotics and smartarses, and one especially colourful rent-boy (among whose clients is the local Gardai chief).
Renowned Irish comedians Dylan Moran, Chris O’Dowd and Pat Shortt reveal a darker aspect to their comedic skills, playing men that are deeply dislikeable but fully engaging.
Aidan Gillen (sporting a rakish moustache) channels all his prowess at portraying decadence, as a local doctor soaked in cynicism. “Finished with all your gobbledigook?” he asks Fr James after he’s administered the last rites to a dying man.
Meanwhile Orla O’Rourke plays Veronica, a frustrated beauty trapped in a loveless marriage who gets her kicks in adulterous flings, particularly with a Ghanaian immigrant played by Isaach De Bankole. (Veronica could be the heroine in a Bette Davis or Joan Crawford flick from the 1940s.)
The strikingly pretty Kelly Reilly plays Fr James’ daughter (he was married before taking holy orders), who visits him following a botched suicide attempt, spurred by a failed love affair. The versatile and brilliant David Wilmot plays a younger priest troubled by the exotic nature of the modern sins he has to absolve in confession.
Though the narrative entails more clever caricatures than fully-rounded characters, the actors perform with such panache they never fail to convince. The whole film has the effect of pagan Saturnalia, a sense of misrule run amok, as the imposing slopes of Ben Bulben tower above it all.
Mention should go to the cinematography of Larry Smith, whose aerial shots are staggering, as is the vividness he captures in the landscape features – ice-blue sea crashes onto pitch-black rocks. Patrick Cassidy’s sweeping, undulating soundtrack is also very effective.
But the movie belongs to Gleeson who famously starred in McDonagh’s debut feature The Guard (2011), in which he was dodgy copper Sergeant Gerry Boyle, an unreconstructed chauvinist who ends up a hero despite himself.
Fr James, however, is an idealist clinging ever more desperately to his faith: “There’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues,” he insists.
In the aftermath of Ireland’s most damaging scandal this story is about the crumbling status of the clergy, yet oddly it implies that committed figures like Fr James are needed to regenerate ethical values. Gleeson is like Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952), a moral guardian doing the right thing while the townsfolk stand aside and watch him struggle against his doom.
More accomplished than The Guard, Calvary is the second in McDonagh’s “glorious suicide trilogy”. We should eagerly await the third instalment.
Calvary is a film that should be seen by anyone concerned for Ireland’s current sense of moral wasteland and also by anyone who wants to enjoy a knowing, ironical smile about it. Essential viewing.
Calvary is currently showing in selected cinemas across Britain