Brendan Gleeson and John Michael McDonagh reunite for a darkly comic, intimately rewarding triumph
In 2011, I attended a Q & A with Brendan Gleeson at the Foyle Film Festival following a special screening of his hit collaboration with Martin & John Michael McDonagh, The Guard. He had spoken very positively of his working relationship with the brothers, describing them as "vigorous and hard-edged film-makers who don't tolerate sloppy writing." Tellingly, Gleeson added that he and the duo were talking about making a film "featuring a good priest living in a village that vilifies him".
This idea has come to fruition nearly three years on in Calvary, a film which retains the darkly comedic tone of The Guard but tones down its admittedly appealing broadness for something more intimately rewarding: a touching, challenging, humorous and terrifically cast character piece. Anyone polarized by the work of the McDonagh brothers – some may see their comedies as tender and light-hearted, others as overly smug and knowing – will find much more to like here.
Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, whose tired, bearded worn out face is the ideal fit for an actor of Gleeson's stature. Someone who sees himself as too old, too wise and just downright wrong for modern life, James is living out his days like one routine slog after another. (Imagine Tommy Lee Jones' very well played Sheriff Bell from No Country For Old Men, except more human and less arch, and you get the idea.) When the film opens, on a solitary shot of James's features in the darkness, he is listening to the confession of a young man, identified by voice only, who is traumatised by the sexual abuse he received from a priest at the age of seven. A typically bored James half-heartedly treats this as a routine assignment, advising the young man to cope or learn how to live with it. But he wishes to do neither. Instead, he arranges a meeting with James on a beach the following Sunday, where James will meet his end at the hands of this unknown parishioner. James' innocence, the mystery man says, solidifies him as a more satisfying target in his eyes, a stronger way of making a point.
What is this suggesting? That a prejudice has been formed against all priests because of the misdeeds of one, a point that will be illustrated again later in the movie? If so, it ties in with Gleeson's reference to vilification, albeit of the unfair kind. And so the film proceeds, as a week in the life of Father James, with an exceptionally expressive Gleeson the centrepiece of an equally expressive supporting cast. Without a Don Cheadle-esque foil to play off, Gleeson must work harder to bring his character alive, and he successfully does so in a community where few – with the exception of a couple of females – can really be trusted.
An aging writer (M. Emmet Walsh), a troubled widow (Marie-Josée Croze of Munich fame), a bored businessman (the always excellent Dylan Moran) and a butcher (the consistently improving Chris O'Dowd) are just a series of townsfolk we encounter on the interesting journey that evolves for James and, to a slightly lesser extent, his daughter Fiona, portrayed brilliantly by Kelly Reilly. The vulnerable tenderness between James and Fiona is the beating heart of a community in which James is, as Gleeson himself has said, generally vilified by people who neither want nor truly need his help. They instead wish to be left to cope in their own way, and use James to air their own frustrations. We learn here of how reassurance or self-assurance is preferred to "correction", "self-examination" or "critical inspection", and how many are too stubborn to accept change. If anyone really changes during the film, barring James and Fiona, it is forced circumstantial change, rather than voluntary change.
Suitably, the majority of McDonagh's focus is the father-daughter bond, and there is also openness to his filmmaking that you don't find in similarly "intimate" works such as those of a Sofia Coppola or a Spike Jonze. Nor, despite sadism and violence, is there the borderline crassness of a Spielberg or Tarantino; for example, the face of Isaach De Bankolé (who viewers may remember as a villain in Casino Royale '06) can be menacing enough in itself. McDonagh places great trust in his cinematographer and his actors, his directorial flourishes sparse but sparkling. And, in Calvary, both he and Gleeson have conjured up something rather special indeed, a piece of work that simultaneously mocks and pays lip service to the qualities of the relentlessly dark, "serious movies" of modern times, whilst maintaining the enjoyment quotient.