Before Calvary began someone in the (unfortunately small) audience remarked that this is ‘the perfect film to see on Easter Monday.’ It’s a nice way to think about it but this would be an excellent film to see at any time. This is the second directorial outing by John Michael McDonagh (after 2011’s brilliant The Guard) and if he maintains this quality then he’ll rapidly become one of my favourite filmmakers. Calvary is a story that contemplates issues of blame, punishment, revenge, reconciliation and, of course, faith, and packages them all in a bloody good story.
Much of the contemplating is done by Brendan Gleeson, playing Father James Lavelle, who easily marshals enough gravitas and nuance to deal with the issues in a believable manner. Further, he continues to be an eminently watchable actor (as he was in The Guard and In Bruges), and the frequent poignant close-ups of his face never fail to emote. McDonaugh clearly trusts Gleeson to convey much of the emotional content of the film with a raise of his eyebrow, pensive stroke of his beard, or stare into the middle-distance. And rightly so, because you’d be wrong to think that this is an overwrought or unsubtle piece; the emotion and contemplation is beautifully judged, only adding to the engaging story.
Father Lavelle is an experienced priest in rural County Sligo, living in a community that is clearly losing (or, to a large extent, has lost) its faith. At the outset he receives a death threat motivated by the childhood abuse of the would-be murderer, which is horrendously recounted in a quasi-confession. He is given a week to put his affairs in order, after which he will be subjected to the revenge due to the institution that he represents. What unfolds after this gripping opening is a week in his life that is, in many respects, unextraordinary. He puts his affairs in order but does so, largely, by going about his usual routine and remaining calm in the face of the increasing hostility that his parishioners directs towards him. Thus it is that we watch an innocent and decent man being attacked for crimes that he did not commit. It’s a moving portrayal but it’s also not that simple, in the sense that he is a flawed man, and that the community have their reasons for seeking a scapegoat.
More than a complex portrayal of a man preparing for his death, this is also a film filled with warmth, love and, very often, humour. It’s funny in the same low key but occasionally outlandish fashion as The Guard. Much of the humour relies on the characters in the local community who are, without exception, played superbly by the supporting cast (only Kelly Reilly, otherwise excellent as Father Lavelle’s daughter, is landed with an occasional line that’s too clunky to pull off convincingly). Special mention, I think, is earned by Dylan Moran, who’s grating performance as a modern-day local notable (filthy rich off the back of the unsustainable banking boom) is almost unbearable. Initially I thought it was over-the-top but it turns out to be just right; we’re supposed to hate this man so that, when the time comes, our final understanding of him has more meaning. He also acts as an important reflection of Gleeson’s character, reminding the audience how easy it is to hate people for the things they represent without taking that extra step to understand them as individuals.
Crucially, there’s no attempt to apologise for the wrongs that have been done, be they by the Church or the banks, or even to present Father Lavelle as flawless or without blame. What he is to be blamed for, however, is a wrong that I suspect most of us commit; being moved to a greater extent by nearby events than by more horrific events that aren’t immediately visible. So, even whilst he remains a potent metaphor for Jesus, bearing the punishment for others’ sins, he is also flawed and ultimately human. Don’t worry though, despite the religious context and theme, the issues at stake are accessibly rendered. They are issues of human existence and, even as a sceptical agnostic, I found them deeply moving.
Calvary made me both laugh and cry, which I take as a sign of a fine film. Gleeson is excellent, as is the supporting cast, the story is simple but engaging, and the issues are contemplated with intelligence and a healthy dash of humour. This is a thoroughly entertaining and highly recommended film.