Review: Calvary


Your own, personal, Jesus

After last week’s nutty Noah, a more grounded trial of transcendence, forgiveness, and redemption, in John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. Here, Brendan Gleeson’s Father James is a good priest, a rural Babel’s own “personal Jesus” – “Someone to hear your prayer, someone to care.”

But this priest has a thorny dilemma – someone known to him has promised in the confessional to kill him in one week’s time on the beach, as penance for the Catholic church’s sweeping under the rug of paedophile priests, and of his own abuser in particular.

Father James is the rock upon which the village grotesques seek to break his faith, while challenging him deep down to save theirs. This is an Ireland reeling from economic collapse, child abuse, and simmering racism, a can of worms perched on a precipice at the edge of the Atlantic, horribly exposed, and lacking guidance.  Aiden Gillen’s caustic A & E doctor recounts a chilling anesthetist’s accident with a young child to Father James in his personal (pub) Garden of Gethsemene moment.

The film plays out like a novel, Russian or Beckett-like in its dark, lacerating humour. Don’t expect a laugh riot like McDonagh’s previous film with Gleeson, The Guard. At it’s heart, this is a serious examination of, if not faith, grace in the face of mortality. Gleeson has never been better than here. The camera holds many times on his face in close-up, warm and kindly, yet troubled and wise, too good for those around him, yet never losing hope. One such beautifully shot close-up is a two hander between him and a recently bereaved widow, her husband killed in an RTA. Shot from low down, her pupils are almost pitch black in shadow. But as she speaks of their love and time on this earth, and her acceptance of death, tiny flickers of red, reflection of the hospital chapel candles, dance in her eyes, chasing away the night. It’s  a wonderful, simple moment of poignant transcendence.

In an almost faultless film, there is one distressing red herring that seems to only act as a set-up for an exchange during the dune-scape dénouement.

Mention should also be made of Kelly Reilly, very good as Father James’ troubled daughter, wryly accepting of his “mid-life crises” after a difficult estrangement (Father James was once married, and found his vocation after his wife’s death). An earlier line from Father James (“it’s not my church”) takes on further resonance – it is seemingly no accident that he was married and had a child – to understand the people, one must be one of the people.

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