From the director of The Guard
“I’m going to kill you, Father. I’m going to kill you cause you’re innocent.”
The opening scene of Calvary doesn’t waste any time in establishing the premise. Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is told in confession, by a man we do not see, that on Sunday week he is going to kill him. This startling revelation is met with an almost resigned acceptance by the priest. Upon being asked what he has to say, responds that he doesn’t have anything to say at the moment, but he’s sure he’ll think of something when the day itself arrives. And so we follow the daily activities of Father Lavelle in the week leading up to the Sunday, as he goes about his parish duties, attempts to reconnect with his troubled daughter (born before he went into the church), and debates what to do about the threat to his life.
Calvary has been an eagerly anticipated release, a follow up to director John Michael McDonagh’s critically acclaimed feature debut The Guard (which also starred Gleeson). Don’t expect the same kind of comedy-crime caper – Calvary (a term that refers to sculptures or pictures representing the crucifixion of Jesus) has its moments of dark humour, but this is a drama that handles a serious topic with a refreshing sense of forthrightness.
From the moment you see him, Gleeson’s Father Lavelle feels warm and genuine. Your heart aches that a person who is obviously a good, intelligent, kind man should have to face such a fate. Here is a man who must struggle on in the face of blatant and dubious moral behaviour. His parishioners practically flaunt their sins in front of him, cruelly oblivious to his pain. Of course, some are worse than others, and perhaps to us some of these people seem petty and not worth worrying about (a woman having an affair outside of a loveless marriage, for instance), but for Lavelle – who believes that being without integrity is the worst thing a person could be, and exudes integrity himself – this makes every day disheartening. His week gets progressively worse as his resolve and strength are tested. Gleeson’s performance is sublime – easily a career best.
The overall sombre tone is punctuated by moments of dark comedy, which provides welcome relief and several laugh out loud moments. Much of this comes from Gleeson’s interaction with the excellent supporting cast, who include such actors as Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, and Aiden Gillen. Dialogue and script are sharp, witty, and the most ridiculous lines are delivered with such deadpan, straight-faced expressions, that it’s impossible to not laugh. The poignant moments though, come from Lavelle’s conversations with his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). Reilly easily holds her own with Gleeson, and together the two pack an emotional punch.
The cinematography highlights both the bleakness of the landscape, while still foregrounding its strange, stark beauty. The bare hills, alternately grey and blue skies, and empty beaches have an isolating effect, further reminding us of the lonely situation that Father Lavelle has found himself in, through no fault of his own. There is great depth in every aspect of this film, and McDonagh’s direction is strong, assured, and unfaltering. Calvary is a triumph, and a must see.