Film review: CALVARY, from Built For Speed

Calvary, which follows the wonderfully acerbic The Guard as the second in a planned trilogy of films about Ireland from director John Michael McDonagh, is one of the strangest, cleverest and most thought-provoking films so far this year. 

The film grips us from its opening confession booth scene in which weary, disillusioned priest Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) hears an unseen man from his small-town Parish on Ireland’s west coast graphically describe his childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic Priest.  The man, whose voice Father Lavelle possibly recognises, then reveals his plan to send a message to the nation about sexual abuse.  He intends to murder a priest in a week’s time.  He won’t kill the priest who abused him as he’s already dead and killing as revenge would not send the desired message.  Instead, he wants to make a more profound statement about the church’s collective guilt by killing an innocent priest … Father Lavelle.  Most people hearing this death sentence would be on the next plane out of the country but committed to his role, Lavelle stays.  

Much of the film is spent with Father Lavelle going about his duties visiting the townsfolk who are the biggest collection of oddballs this side of a David Lynch film.  The ubiquitous Chris O’Dowd plays the local butcher who seems to beat his wife (Orla O’Rourke) even though she scoffs at Lavelle’s attempts to help her.  Dylan Moran plays a disgraced and perpetually sozzled financial mogul who feels only a sliver of guilt at the damage he wrought on people’s lives during the GFC.  Aiden Gillen plays a nihilistic local Doctor who delights in ridiculing Father Lavelle’s faith and seems to spend as much time at the local pub as the hospital.  Gary Lydon returns as police Inspector Stanton the character he played in The Guard who, as a cop, is potentially Father Lavelle’s saviour but he’s actually the most sinister and threatening person in the town.  David Wilmot plays Father Lavelle’s creepy fellow priest who seems more concerned about money than the well-being of the locals. 

McDonagh clearly delights in subverting our expectations by having usually lovable comic actors like O’Dowd and Moran playing abhorrent people and by having representatives of institutions designed to protect the public seemingly unconcerned about people’s welfare.  Within this unusual world McDonagh examines issues of faith, guilt, responsibility and the painful scars of Ireland’s recent history.  This is not a preachy film, though, with serious messages conveyed obliquely through a series of surreal and blackly comic events and bizarre monologues from the locals.

Amid the quirky humour there’s a compelling sense of dread hanging over this film as each day takes Father Lavelle closer to a possible execution.  As implied by the film’s title there’s a clear parallel between Father Lavelle’s predicament and the last days of Christ.  Also, with a lone man facing an appointment with a killer, a stark windswept Irish setting, strange characters who deliver bizarre philosophical tirades and myriad religious references, this film is what we might expect if James Joyce had scripted High Noon.

As well-being thought-provoking, this film looks stunning with cinematographer Larry Smith’s superbly framed shots of the slate grey Irish coastline not to mention Gleeson’s tortured craggy face.

Gleeson once again proves to be a remarkable actor conveying bearish strength and gruffness while remaining sympathetic and vulnerable.  There’s barely a false note among the other performances although Owen Sharpe’s performance as gigolo who thinks he’s part of Sinatra’s rat pack is almost too strange even for this film.

Poignant, moving, perplexing and darkly funny Calvary will prove a little too strange for some audiences but will linger in the mind of those who surrender to its unusual world.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Comedy/ Drama.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): John Michael McDonagh.

Release date: 3rd July 2014

Running time: 100 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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