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Calvary - Review


Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4.5 out of 5

DEEPLY involving, cleverly plotted and as moving as it is thought-provoking, writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a powerhouse piece of filmmaking.

Reuniting with leading man Brendan Gleeson for the second time, this is a richer, more genuinely satisfying film than The Guard (which in itself still impressed) that may well have you chuckling one moment and utterly gripped the next.

A whodunnit of sorts, this opens with one of the most provocative lines in modern cinema and then proceeds to tighten its grip throughout as kindly Father James (Gleeson) is told that he has one week to get his affairs in order before he is killed in retribution for the sexual abuse an altar boy was forced to endure many years earlier.

The identity of the killer in question is unkown and forms part of the ‘who will do it’ element, which also becomes about whether he will actually go through with it. But perhaps most tellingly, Father James is a true innocent – his murder is intended to be symbolic. It is because he is a good man that people will take notice.

The remainder of the film is spent following James on his daily rounds as he meets the various parishioners who could be his killer, while spending some time with his daughter (Kelly Reilly), who remains oblivious to the threat hanging over him.

Included among his congregation are a boisterous butcher (Chris O’Dowd), a spoilt yet troubled squire (Dylan Moran) and a confrontational medic (Aiden Gillen), all of whom may have hidden motives for carrying out the act.

McDonagh’s film is being billed as a dark comedy and boasts poster quotes proclaiming its laugh out loud qualities. But this shoots a little wide of the mark. A lot of the laughs are uneasy with the focus of the film really more on the drama of the dilemma facing Father James (should he report the threat to the authorities?) and its emotional toll upon him.

In this regard, it gifts Gleeson with the stage upon which to deliver one of the performances of an already distinguished career. His Father is always dignified, even when under the most tremendous strain, and the ensuing performance is deeply sympathetic, endearing and soulful. He is a compelling presence. A decent man struggling to make sense of an indecent world and follow a righteous path.

The more religious inclined will also find the film works on two more levels: both as a provocative commentary on the issues that have bedevilled the Catholic Church and the dangers of painting everyon with the same brush, as well as an allegory for Christ’s own story. There are moments throughout Father James’s story that could be said to mark the various stations of the cross (albeit that his is a psychological cross to bear).

Hence, McDonagh’s screenplay is almost audaciously clever in the way that it can be interpreted on so many levels, or merely enjoyed as a cracking thriller with the power to involve viewers emotionally.

There’s striking use of Irish locations, too, with the raw, natural landscape also serving as a metaphor for the emotional complexities at play. And there’s brilliant support from his ensemble cast, with Reilly superb as Gleeson’s daughter (they enjoy some genuinely poignant scenes together) and the likes of O’Dowd, Gillen and Moran all making their mark in some way.

If there is a minor criticism, it’s that some of the humour does jar with the more serious material. But this doesn’t happen often and never threatens to derail the film’s momentum.

Come the memorable and perfectly realised conclusion, you’ll look back on Calvary as one of the films of this or any year.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 100mins
UK Release Date: April 11, 2014