Calvary (2014)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on August 25, 2014 @ tonymacklin.net.

Calvary is not your father's Calvary.

Set in a small community in Ireland, the film follows Father James (Brendan Gleeson), whose faith becomes frayed as he tries to help others. This priest is a shepherd to wolves. He doesn't have a flock so much as a pack.

Father James is a widower who became a priest after the death of his wife. He faces the threat of death when it is issued to him in the confessional. He doesn't know who it is who has promised to kill him. Although Father James is a good man, the adversary has said he decided to kill him because a priest once abused him.

Father James is a recovering alcoholic now living under the pressures of facing his own death. All around him are people he thinks need help.

His daughter (Kelly Reilly) has attempted suicide and is vulnerable.

The folks in his community are a disparate bunch of sinners: an indifferent, craven wealthy man (Dylan Moran); a wife who plays around - Mary Mags? - (Orla O'Rourke), her cuckolded husband and town butcher (Chris O'Dowd); an arrogant doctor who is an atheist (Aidan Gillen); a puerile fellow priest (David Wilmot).

Also in James's sights are a perverse cop (Gary Lydon), an aged writer (M. Emmet Walsh) facing death, and an imprisoned cannibalistic murderer (portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson - the oldest of Brendan Gleeson's 4 sons). There's a French woman (Marie-Josee Croce), who is mourning the death of her husband killed in a crash on a local road. These are just some of the victimizers and victims that cross the path of Father James as he searches for solace, integrity, and forgiveness.

Brendan Gleeson has received raves for his performance as Father James. And his performance is formidable. His character is both solid and flawed. Father James is a good man in a situation he can't control.

In the opening sequence in a confessional when Father James hears that he is going to be killed, Gleeson's reaction seems incomplete. Father James is thoughtful, perhaps a bit rueful, but not fearful, although a man with a weapon might be on the other side of the confessional. Hitchcock would have included fear.

But overall, Gleeson with girth and mirth personifies conflict. As the philandering woman tells him, "You're a little too sharp for this parish." He is a rock of stability worn away by the Irish surf.

If Gleeson provides the heart, British cinematographer Larry Smith provides the soul. Smith's cinematography has beauty and clarity. It's bright and evocative, glaring and shimmering. White walls and blue sea. The Irish locale is lyrical.

Smith worked as lighting cameraman, electrician, and gaffer for Stanley Kubrick. He learned well from the master.

The script by director John Michael McDonough allows space for pondering, but its point-of-view is convoluted. The basic theme is forgiveness, but the manifestation of it is a bit strained.

McDonough humanizes his characters, but some of them come close to being stock figures. He trots out the obvious, but often invests it with humor. He has a couple of speeches that are galvanic and moving. And the film winds up powerfully.

At times, McDonough swerves from the expected and leaves something unresolved. Irish spirit pervades Calvary.

Calvary is one of those films that depend more than most on what you bring to it. If you're full of faith you'll probably react differently from those who are not.

Calvary is open to interpretation. Just like religion.

Or not.

© 2000-2020 Tony Macklin