A priest in a small town in the West of Ireland is told he will be killed in seven days.
Writer/director John Michael McDonagh made a bit splash with his first feature The Guard – which went on to be one of the biggest movies of the year at the Irish box office in 2011. Now all eyes are on his sophomore effort but is it destined for the same kind of popularity?
Possibly not. For all the strong reviews Calvary is pulling down around the world, it’s a much darker and more niche product than The Guard was. McDonagh acknowledges this, saying that he was more interested in making a European-style art film, a well made picture with a line in black comedy. And while fans who are on board with that tone will adore Calvary, others will likely find it all too heavy for Friday night viewing.
The film chiefly revolves around a priest played by Brendan Gleeson who is told he’ll be murdered in a week and the unique way he deals with the situation. The film resists ever becoming a full on investigation or thriller (though it does have some elements), touches on drama and more generally leans on seriously black comedy to get from one moment to the next.
McDonagh has a talent for the witty stuff and proves it here again but he’s also got a perfect artistic companion in Gleeson. Father Lavelle is a familiar creation – worldly, learned and prone to the odd quotation or two. But with an impossibly fluffy beard and a demeanour that’s never quite friendly, Gleeson owns the role in a way no other living actor could.
And he’s got some interesting company, with practically every working Irish actor popping in for a scene or two. That includes Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot, Killian Scott and Pat Shortt.
Ok so Calvary has some great lines, a strong lead performance, sometimes stunning photography and an agreeably off-kilter sense of humour. But it also has some problems which I can’t avoid mentioning. For one, it’s a film very much impressed with its own cleverness – you can almost see the film pausing for a self-aware smirk after a particularly witty exchange.
And while there is some great comedy here (Dylan Moran’s scenes in particular) there’s also a glut of characters- and I mean that term literally. Every person on screen in Calvary is larger than life, popping out punch lines like non-sequitur machine guns. It’s stage Irishness writ large and larger still and it eventually becomes a bit exhausting.
Add in an ending which milks the melodrama to a ridiculous degree, extraneous scenes (Domhnall Gleeson doesn’t need to be here) and another utterly bizarre accent from Aiden Gillen (he sounds like a cultie pirate) and you’ve got a film that entertains and frustrates in almost equal measure.