Director: John Michael McDonagh
Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Stars: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly
Motion Picture Rating: R
Runtime: 100 minutes
The word calvary can mean agony or anguish as well as torture or affliction. The calvary being endured in John Michael McDonagh’s second film as writer-director is that of Father James Lavelle, a Catholic priest in rural Ireland. It is also that of the Irish people. Their deep anguish at the hands of the Catholic Church as well as other tainted pillars of society from bankers to politicians. Ireland during the last 5 – 10 years has suffered a crisis of faith and this film wades through it warts and all.
The opening of the film is in confessional with Father James listening to a male member of his parish. The voice from behind the curtain tells the priest that he will kill him in 7 days’ time to make amends for the pedophile sins of the Church. It is a shocking first scene. Father James has little to say. The clock on his execution come sacrifice is already ticking.
The film follows father James, played by Brendan Gleeson, through the days leading up to that date with destiny. He ministers to his congregation as best that he can with equal parts charm and bemusement. His community is a mix of oddball characters, played nicely by Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Aidan Gillen etc, with plenty of dark secrets shared around. Father James must deal with adulterers, deviants, criminals and addicts. For a small wind-swept town there is plenty of healing to do (although most seek solace a long way from the church). It becomes clear that this priest gets short shrift from an ever faithless flock.
Father James starts to question his own faith as the town openly questions the church and other once lofty Irish institutions. The tone of the film gets darker, the themes heavier and the numerous comic touches of the first 60 minutes fall away. The transition is mostly handled well by the writer-director. Arguably this is a black comedy, but the blackness engulfs the comedy by the end. Unlike its predecessor “The Guard”, another very good film, McDonagh paints a much bigger picture than ‘rural Irish strangeness’. This attempts something grander.
The few flaws that appear are mostly the result of over-ambition. There are one too many characters to follow, their traits are too extreme at times and the storyline about the disgraced banker (Moran) pales against that of the crumbling church. However, Gleeson holds it all together with a perfect performance. He relishes the material and gives it his all. His Father James goes on a hell of a journey and his anguish is very real. That calvary is seemingly reflected in the dark, damaged and detached minds of many of his fellow countrymen.