Calvary stars Brendan Gleeson as Father James Lavelle, a priest who watches over the parish of one of Ireland’s coastal villages. Despite his troubled past Father James handles matters quite well, until one of his parishioners tells him about a history of abuse and threatens to kill James the next Sunday. What unfolds is a decidedly dark, quite uneven but moving tale about a man who tries to fulfill his duty and vocation as a priest, while dealing with his own mistakes, humanity and the equally tortured townsfolk. With its slow pace, dreary locale and predominant focus on drama over black comedy, Calvary is a much more serious picture than John Michael McDonagh’s previous film The Guard, which also starred Gleeson. It’s also a movie that firmly rests on the actor’s broad shoulders, which is the main reason it works.
Despite the efforts of an impressive ensemble cast of actors who get to show off both their comedic and dramatic range, it’s Gleeson who’s front and center and, as Father James, is once again an incredibly engaging presence to watch. His ability to bring pathos, warmth, sternness and rage to characters pays off greatly here: his priest is in every scene of the movie and, with his versatility, Gleeson makes James a well-rounded human being, aided by McDonagh’s slightly heightened writing. While the sentences coming out of the characters’ mouths aren’t realistic and opt for a more poetic and speechy approach, the language’s contents are exceptionally insightful and poignant, while they also leave ample room for interpretation. That is definitely a good thing in a film that discussed topics as faith, forgiveness, ego and responsibility; topics that usually are most interesting when they’re not easily and bluntly defined. It’s Gleeson who makes these topics resonate via his portrayal of McDonagh’s intriguing character James, and it’s he who’s most memorable, but that doesn’t take anything away from the supporting actors: Chris O’Dowd delivers a very layered performance as the town butcher and Kelly Reilly is also truly exceptional as James’ daughter; she’s truly radiant and her chemistry with Gleeson makes for some of Calvary‘s best moments, which are quite uplifting amidst the gloom brought on by Calvary‘s themes and constantly cloudy and windy backdrop.
What holds the film back is its tonal inconsistencies, though. There are no laughs for long stretches of the film, but then, suddenly, there are comedic lines in between serious conversations about significant subject matter. While the attempt at levity is understandable, the implementation is rough and distracting. There are so few of these lighter moments that, for long stretches of the film, you forget about that element altogether, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing since Calvary works well as an existential drama. Much like the comedic lines, some characters are also too cartoony to gel with the serious tone of most of the movie’s narrative, which really is a shame and detracts from this sombre and serious but ultimately moving film because some scenes simply don’t work. A film like In Bruges (directed by this director’s brother Martin McDonagh and also starring Gleeson) was much more delicately and effectively balanced, which made it both funny and emotionally engaging in a way that Calvary simply isn’t.
Gleeson is phenomenal, but Calvary‘s writing leaves something to be desired. It’s still a very moving film, though; its final moments will stay with you for a while. 7/10