2014, 101mins, 15
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Cast includes: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O'Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran
UK Release Date: 11th April 2014
John Michael McDonagh’s “The Guard” was a darkly-gilded and anarchic debut, a morality tale preoccupied with roving bursts of challenging comedy and a superb exhibition of anti-hero attitude courtesy of Irish national treasure Brendan Gleeson. The duo reunite with “Calvary”; switching their focus from law enforcement to religious institution, taking the narrative to parts of Ireland that make the Galway of “The Guard” look like a hub of metropolitan energy. “Calvary” adopts a bleaker and even more introspective tone than its predecessor, asking questions about faith that the Irish population constantly need posed. The issues it raises have informed Irish public affairs and ethical debate for decades, but rarely have they been so delicately positioned within the sphere of art. It’s a film that should ascertain praise from all sorts of viewers due to its gorgeous form and strong character study, but those with bonds to the Catholic Church or Ireland itself should uncover extra resonance in this ball of subdued fire. There’s a raw honesty and aura of torment to “Calvary” that renders the dying moments of Stephen Frears’ “Philomena” superfluous by comparison.
Whilst hosting confessional at his small Parish, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is mortally threatened by a local with disturbing roots in the Church. Instructed that he has a week to live, Lavelle is left shaken by the occurrence, unsure if the law should be alerted, with little helpful advice coming from his superiors. Throughout the course of the week Lavelle spends his time with an assortment of troubled and disengaged locals, his own faith beginning to creak under the weight of their grim realities and his own impending doom. Heightening the intensity is the reappearance of his troubled daughter Fiona (a believably damaged Kelly Reilly), herself recovering from tragedy and emotional despair.
“Calvary” opens with the fabled confessional that informs the rest of its structure, and immediately asserts Gleeson as its most powerful tool. A static camera watches in close-up as Gleeson is fed repulsive and anatomically accurate recounts of a haunted youth, before being informed of his own forthcoming reckoning. McDonagh’s dialogue succinctly establishes his humanity ("certainly a startling opening line") as he initially struggles to process the starkness of the terrible confession, but it’s Gleeson’s darkened and emotive features that bring alive the struggles which inform the film’s central arc. The actor is in breath-taking form, casting side the gregarious wisecracking of “The Guard” in favour of pensive and deeply familiar doubt, conjuring a remarkably vivid inner-turmoil. It’s important that McDonagh builds the character as someone of incredible awareness, privy to sins of the past and his own weaknesses. But there’s also stoicism and deep sorrow buried below Gleeson’s gentle stare, a complex and full 180 from some of his gruffer back-catalogue. He’s quiet but never gloomy, the strife and questions that hang over “Calvary” brought to life with reserved force by its leading man.
“Calvary” has satirical and comedic mettle (often embodied by some of the wackier members of Lavelle’s congregation), but even these screen entities are offered real souls by McDonagh’s composed script. There are no saints or sinners in “Calvary”, only real human-beings beset by secularisation, emptiness or pious superiority. McDonagh constructs the script so each supporting figure gifts further richness to Lavelle’s own burgeoning crisis, the film-maker wasting neither performer nor line in pursuit of his open-ended but stunningly delivered final frame. “Calvary” takes place over seven days, but the film sculpts its titchy rural community with an eye for impeccable detail. McDonagh has a proclivity for hard-hitting dynamism and dominant singular essence of character (“Calvary” has atheists, worthless ecclesiastical dignitaries and pragmatic angels) but that doesn’t render the product shallow. In fact it all seeks to deepen the questions of faith and meaning that consume Lavelle.
Aesthetically “The Guard” adhered to a more fixed realism, which is interesting given that “Calvary” evidences increased maturation. The shots of Irish countryside that introduce the picture’s setting have a grey, but intensely poetic tone. The slightly muted pastures and waves coloured by darkening skies have the appearance of paradise before the storm. There’s an incredible beauty and tranquillity to the small town spaces and rocky beaches where much of the film’s action unfolds, but tellingly McDonagh never allows those foreboding clouds to relent. It’s a superb mimic of its leading character’s consciousness; a potentially perfect balance of simplicity and elegance, harassed by an expanding shadow of cynicism and purposelessness. Of course during its final hurrah the movie channels the stand-off DNA of a Western, complete with awed youth, divine heroism and impossible anger. However up to that point “Calvary” has the feel of a fairy-tale, an exquisite never-world; an Enya video without the warbling vocals. I genuinely intend that last comment as a compliment. Whilst Enya’s wailing manipulatively denotes melodramatic significance amid natural landscapes, “Calvary” uses Ireland with sophistication and immeasurably more consideration for character and national identity.
I've deliberately avoided yelling the critical social context at the heart of “Calvary”; the lynchpin of its relation to the Church so to speak. Those with any knowledge of Ireland over the past 60 years will no doubt have predicted the topic, and may even begrudge McDonagh the use of such delicate material. Please don’t. McDonagh never veers into exploitation or showmanship, he only uses the notion to posit vital quandaries and construct characters deeply entwined with the guilt of Irish national consciousness. Crucially “Calvary” isn't anti-organised religion; indeed through the truthfulness of Lavelle it makes a compelling point for its import. Instead the piece fixates on what faith means to certain types, using specific identification with Ireland’s recent past to communicate the issue. Is religion anachronistic, possibly even secondary to new consumer-infused deities? Maybe it’s corrupted beyond usage? Is there a crime too severe for redemption? McDonagh intelligently muses on all these points, and many more besides.
The film’s title is easy to decode yet essential. In fact by underlining such overt biblical reference McDonagh makes the final moment all the more poignant. Our faith will always be in question, but there are figures of decency and virtue worth rallying behind. They carry the burden of our guilt and eternal upset, fighting through immense barriers in the name of righteousness. The least we can do is forgive. It’s in the dramatization of this point, and of a man set down the rocky path of earning salvation that “Calvary” confirms its status as a unique masterwork.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014