Brendan Gleeson gives the performance of his career in bleak Irish western Calvary, but does the film itself match up? MacDara Conroy isn’t so sure
Calvary certainly gets off to a shocking start, as an unseen parishioner in the confession box of a nameless priest (Brendan Gleeson) gives an unflinching account of childhood abuse at the hands of a clergyman, and signs off with a threat to murder our priest, at a specific place and time – not because he’s guilty of such heinous crimes but precisely the opposite, because he’s innocent. And no one will expect that, will they?
Our man has a little over a week to put his affairs in order, a situation that owes as much to taut Westerns like High Noon as it does the Biblical account of Jesus’ final days. And it’s an eventful week, to say the least, as he does his pastoral duty within his quaint but rugged West of Ireland coastal community, populated by a grotesquerie of oddballs – the jolly butcher, the louche housewife, the disengaged banker, the cold-hearted doctor, the eccentric American blow-in, and so on – some of whom seem determined to make his life, or what’s left of it, exceedingly difficult.
As the days wear on, our man’s cross grows unbearable as the community’s petty resentments and cynical bullying chip away at his stoic sense of self. On top of all that, he must come to terms with his previous life as a married layman when his estranged daughter (Kelly Reilly) comes to visit after some kind of cry-for-help episode. It’s all a bit of a powderkeg, to say they least, and writer/director John Michael McDonough (brother of playwright Martin) clearly takes delight in lighting the fuse.
McDonough posits Calvary as the second part of his ‘Glorified Suicide’ trilogy, the first being his triumphant debut feature The Guard. Like that film, which also sees Gleeson in the lead role, Calvary plays up the wildness Ireland’s own ‘wild west’; sure you’d have to be mad to live out there, with the barren wilderness and unforgiving seas – rendered with a painterly eye by cinematographer Larry Smith, his lens most definitely in love with that breathtaking scenery (shot between Sligo and North Co Dublin, as it happens). Smith also gets what it means, switching up between the awe-striking harshness of nature at its most uncompromising, and the empty blandness of pretty flowerpots and cafés of the gentrified village nearby.
However, unlike The Guard – which works incredibly well as a buddy-cop thriller with a biting edge of black comedy – Calvary‘s bleak cynicism overwhelms any similar attempts at gallows humour. And that’s mostly because we have in Calvary a main protagonist who’s drawn in such heartbreaking detail; a real, good yet flawed human being among a shower of one-note bastards who can fuck off with their ‘jokes’. Indeed, it’s a tour de force by Brendan Gleeson, easily the best role of his career, which makes so stark the enormous chasm of contrast between his sympathetic priest and the ridiculous caricatures that surround him.
They’re not all contemptuous gits, mind: David McSavage wryly plays against type as a bourgeois bishop, and M Emmet Walsh is a riot as a cantankerous author isolated from the hell of other people in his rocky island home. Reilly, too, adds genuine spark as Fiona, the daughter who lost her father to the Lord – and an outsider whose bullshit detector is in full working order.
But the rest – despite such names as Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen, Orla O’Rourke, Isaach De Bankolé, Pat Shortt, Gary Lydon (who reprises his role of Gerry Stanton from The Guard, though in alternate-reality fashion) and Domhnall Gleeson – seem only to exist to pile on the torments. They’re less people than punishments to endure, with no substance beyond their symbolism. It’s telling to note that midway through, our priest derides another character for failing to understand human nature; that’s a notion that threatens to undermine this whole enterprise.
Calvary is also a film that wants to be a kind of ‘state of the nation’ address, with the spectre of the Celtic Tiger looming large over proceedings. Yet while it’s all well and good to raise such questions – which this film does in a painfully obvious, sixth-year fashion – it’s answers we need, answers that Ireland as a whole doesn’t seem prepared to deal with. And for all its pretensions, Calvary doesn’t give us any, either, instead merely underlining the futility of it all.
While it has much to appreciate, not least Gleeson’s captivating performance, Calvary is a film that’s very hard to like. As I write these final words it’s been about two months since the screening and I still don’t quite know what to make of it, for good or ill.
Calvary opens nationwide on April 11th
Also published on Medium.