In a small church on the West coast of Ireland, a man comes into the confessional and tells of his abused childhood at the hands of a paedophile priest; and that in seven days he’s going to kill his confessor (Brendan Gleeson – Troy, In Bruges), precisely for being a good man.
Gleeson’s Father James Lavelle then has a week in which to settle his affairs; a week in a toxic parish of cynicism, disillusion and despair which tests his own faith to the limit.
Set in an Ireland that is far far from Leap Year and The Commitments, the Celtic Tiger economy has gone bust so that even the village pub is closing down. The standing of the Church is utterly destroyed in the aftermath of decades of child abuse by priests. This is an Ireland that is economically broken and lashing out at the institution of the Church, an Ireland awash with drinking, adultery, drug taking and violence.
Gleeson’s priest is no shrinking violet; a widower who came late to the priesthood, he is sorely tested by a congregation determined to abuse and humiliate his old-fashioned, frocked priest; even the tourists assume all priests are paedophiles.
A superb supporting cast includes local siren Veronika (Oria O’Rourke), married to an unstable provincial butcher (Chris O’Dowd – Bridesmaids, The Sapphires); Aidan Gillan (Game of Thrones) is the sinister aetheist doctor; comic Dylan Moran (Black Books) is the depressive, money-obsessed banker turned laird.
Domnal Gleeson (Harry Potter, About Time) is the morally vacuous junior priest, better suited as an insurance salesman and no help at all. So the only moral support is from Lavelle’s grown-up daughter (Kelly Reilly – Game of Shadows) visiting after a recent suicide attempt, and M. Emmet Walsh (Blade Runner, A Time to Kill) as the elderly emigre American author making plans for his own euthanasia.
Calvary plays the full deck of taboo subjects, each becoming in some way a personal test of faith for the put upon priest. The bishop recommends going to the police, but to Father Lavelle, that would break the sanctity of the confessional.
Instead, Gleeson’s brilliantly expressive, bear-like priest has to navigate all these hazards of faith. Will this drinking, fighting priest compromise his beliefs, turn in the would-be murderer, run away or will he go to his own personal Calvary and accept whatever fate God has in store for him? With echoes of High Noon, his parishioners don’t merely turn their backs, but turn on him viciously. So why does he continue to try to redeem them?
Calvary is drama, thriller, suspense and black, black comedy, played pitch-perfect from start to finish; riveting, despite being at times deeply uncomfortable and a difficult watch. Double-bill this with writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s earlier Gleeson vehicle, The Guard and have two Irish triumphs.
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Genre: Drama, Art House & International,Thriller, Comedy
Running time: 1 hr. 40 min.
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josée Croze, Domhnall Gleeson, Oria O’Rourke
Related: The Guard (2011)