This review was originally written for Cherwell
‘Simultaneously thought-provoking and self-indulgent, John Michael McDonagh’s latest black comedy is rescued by Gleeson’s compelling performance’
With John Michael McDonagh’s last portrait of rural Ireland in mind, I approached Calvary with eager anticipation. I would urge you not to do the same. The Guard, his previous effort, is filled with originality; its cast is both appropriate and convincing and its frequent humour somehow light despite its darkness. With Calvary, however, McDonagh’s approach blackens further. His subject matter is both depressing and unbelievable, his direction is far too self-indulgent and any humour present is dampened by a series of poor performances.
Brendan Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, a kindly Catholic Priest concerned with the immoral activities of his flock and beset by a deepening crisis of faith in his parish. Warned by an anonymous confessor (whose identity is obvious to the sharp-eared) that he will be murdered ‘on Sunday week’, simply because ‘killing a good priest – that would be a shock’. We watch as a series of colourful (read unbelievable) characters appear, slowly (read suddenly) turning against Lavelle and his church. Supported only by his suicidal daughter, Lavelle tries to upkeep the moral values of his parishioners as his life unravels before him.
What is truly disappointing about this film is its unfulfilled potential. There are memorable funny moments, like when Chris O’Dowd complains of his wife’s erroneous behaviour: ‘She’s either bipolar or lactose intolerant – one of the two’. But with a cast as gloriously funny as this, such moments are all too rare. Dylan Moran, proclaimed ‘the greatest comedian, living or dead’ by Le Monde in 2007, is hopelessly miscast as selfish banker Michael Fitzgerald, as is Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen as atheist Dr. Frank Hart. Both are painfully unfunny, and a scene in which Moran urinates on an expensive painting to prove is disregard for life’s pleasures is excruciatingly so.
Gleeson is perhaps the only cast-member worthy of praise, although David Wilmot’s Father Leary is commendable in its convincing meekness. Gleeson stands not just head and shoulders, but a full body length above the rest, however. In a performance is brimming with gravitas his brooding Lavelle is captivatingly nuanced and his ability to convey depth of thought with the subtlest ticks is remarkable.
Where The Guard’s direction was compelling in its imagination, Calvary’s is irritatingly self-indulgent, bordering on tediousness. Scenes of Lavelle and his daughter (Kelly Reilly) discussing Life, The Universe and Everything on a series of remarkably similar cliff-top walks are wearisome in their attempted profundity (that’s purpose is as remote as its insight is shallow) and unconvincing in their realism. McDonagh emphasises the supporting cast’s distinguishing eccentricities with immature exaggeration and allows the plot to develop without the slightest intrigue.
That said, Calvary does touch, if in a heavy-handed manner, on some thought-provoking themes. Its focus, a crisis of faith amongst followers of the Catholic Church, raises questions about sexual perversion in religious authorities, the legitimacy of religion in an economically traumatised state and ultimately the concept of faith itself. Perhaps I am too sensitive, but I thought that these issues, undeniably absorbing though they are, were forcefully thrust upon the viewer. Particularly with the former, it felt as if McDonagh was jumping up and down, waving his arms frantically and pointing to what we should be thinking about.
Ultimately, one should not compare this film to The Guard. Its subject matter is weightier and its tone, whether intentionally or not, is extremely distant. Calvary’s basic premise is sound though, and with better performances, coupled with less overstated direction, it has the makings of a good film. As it is, however, Gleeson’s compelling performance is all that rescues it from dreary self-indulgence.