Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is a priest in County Sligo, Ireland. He is a good and dutiful priest who, whilst sat in the confession box of his parish, is faced with a sinister threat from a deeply troubled and mysterious member of his congregation. He is visited by his fragile daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) and whilst spending important time with her, continues to reach out to help members of his church with their various and very questionable morals. He lends an ear to anyone regardless of the gravity of their personal problems, which are at times very comical. However, as he feels sinister and troubling forces closing in, he is forced to face the biggest test of his duty yet.
This film will be going down as one of my favourite films of 2014. Calvary is an absolutely beautiful film. The first scene opens in the dim and claustrophobic confines of a confessions box and, after some moments, a shocking and horrific opening line. It will not be one you’ll forget and importantly so.
As with the plays and screenplays of his brother, Martin McDonagh, director John Michael McDonagh explores the ideas of faith and redemption a great deal in this film. Set in rural Ireland with a strong emphasis on the Catholic Church and its influence, McDonagh plants many questions without asking for any answers; he presents us with the central character of Father James (Gleeson) who is bound – by no means unwillingly – by duty and a central story line that effectively asks of his character whether he would put duty before everything in his world. We are presented with powerful themes of responsibility, culpability and justice through some vastly different characters with their own vastly different sins and it felt very much as though the audience was being taken by the hand by a kindly priest and trusted friend and calmly walked towards its own Calvary.
The ideas of paralysis and detachment feature a number of times in the film, with a tale of a deafblind child tormenting the priest as he considers a life entombed within one’s own body. Through McDonagh’s smart and tragically frank dialogue he portrays life within the small town and within each of his character’s situations as desperate, dead-ended and hopeless. His characters are entombed by their memories, their vices and the futility of their own existence. There is a running theme of valuable things simply not mattering to these weary people, whether it be their money or even their life. It can all be pissed away; in one scene quite literally. The idea of needing to detach oneself from all the pain is very pivotal in the film’s final scenes, as arguably the dutiful priest must protect himself from the gruesome realities of his neighbours’ lives in order to go on with helping them seeking redemption. In many ways Calvary is a claustrophobic film, as we are invited into the lives of those in quite despair who trapped in their situations with no means of escaping; not even for those with the financial means of leaving.
The cinematography in this film is breathtaking, with sweeping shots of the bleak and desolate yet stunningly beautiful Irish landscape. I must give credit to my mother who noted the significance of Benbulben hill; an extraordinary sight which at the film’s beginning was seen against the horizon in the distance and, as the film’s climax approached, came ever closer as the action moved into the shadow of its vast and looming natural beauty. Patrick Cassidy’s score is equally foreboding, with the haunting music accompanying Father James as he visits those in need and looks out upon the tragically magnificent landscape.
Whilst Calvary has a very sombre plot, that is not to say that there isn’t any humour. With the dark humour and quickly paced, clever dialogue that has become the McDonagh trademark, Father James speaks to the local Milo (Killian Scott) in a particular scene when the youngster is having a personality crisis. His weighing up the pros and cons of killing himself and murdering others causes much guilty hilarity and in many ways elevates the tragedy of the situation as well.
Brendan Gleeson’s performance in Calvary is absolutely exquisite. He brings such calm, compassion and dedication to the role of Father James and, by the film’s end, he has laid bare all of the anger, fear and weakness a man in the priest’s position is capable of feeling as well as his empathy, tenderness and undying faith. Father James is illuminated by Gleeson and is quickly taken into the hearts of the audience as we watch his courage in the face of great threat and his will to go on with his duty regardless.
Kelly Reilly also shines as the priest’s daughter, Fiona Lavelle, and although there are a few exchanges full of very wishy washy, empty dialogue – presumably to make the vulnerable Fiona seem more lost and directionless – there are some very beautiful scenes between her and Gleeson and her performance in the film’s closing scene is at once perfect and heartbreaking.
Dylan Moran is very impressive as Michael Fitzgerald, a troubled man hiding behind his ridiculous wealth and the image the town holds of him, desperately resisting the help he needs. I also think that this is the performance of Chris O’Dowd’s career so far. As the jilted, angry husband of an unfaithful wife, Jack Brennan is the epitome of hopelessness and as the film reaches its climax his torment and sheer agony is horrible to watch but wonderfully executed.
Whilst there is much misery in this film, and admittedly a few elements included purely for additional shock value, it appears to have its sights set on the happiness beyond the pain and on the escape and redemption of the many people in Father James’ small town. There is a great deal of light in the form of the affection and unrelenting hope shown by Father James, who never ceases to help the helpless, and for this reason it is a truly beautiful story.