Although the film Calvary contains many scenes of levity interspersed throughout and it features several comedians and comic actors among its stellar cast, it is a heavy and woeful film that could possibly be culled from any small town Catholic environment from around the world.
Brendon Gleeson stars as Father James, a kind yet rugged Irish Catholic priest who administers the faith to a small Irish parish. The opening scene of the film sets the tone as a man confesses to Father James that he had been sexual abused by a Catholic priest throughout his childhood in graphic detail. He further explains how this abuse has affected him as an adult and that he will kill Father James for the sins of a priest who is long dead. What follows is a pre-murder mystery that features a menagerie of characters who all show disdain for the Catholic Church for one reason or another.
Brendan Gleeson plays Father James realistically and compassionately. He has faith in God, but cannot reconcile that faith with the impending dread he feels as each day goes by. There’s Jack (Chris O’Dowd), a local butcher who is forced to watch helplessly as his wife flaunts her adulterous ways in the open for the entire town to gawk. Then there’s wealthy one-percenter Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a cold hearted industrialist who believes money can buy anything. Dr. Franke Harte, devilishly played by Aiden Gillen of Game of Thrones, is a card carrying atheist whose view of the world is harsh. He delights in taunting the religious status quo with science and sad facts. Car mechanic Simon Asamoah stands out because he is a foreigner and is of African descent. He’s also cheating with the butcher’s wife. During the film he expresses respect but indifference toward Father James, who reminds him of the colonial missionaries who brought Christianity to the non-Christian world. Then there’s Veronica (Orla O'Rourke), the sexy wife of the butcher who gets a thrill out of being provocative and sinful. Could she be the one who inspired the would-be murderer to make the threat?
Actress Kelly Reilly plays Fiona, Father James' troubled daughter from a marriage that ended in the tragic death of his wife. Having issues maintaining relationships, she blames her father. The entire film is pure drama.
“They were building blocks for the story, but as a writer you’re trying to write characters who are not building blocks but real, genuine characters who have their own beliefs and their own feelings,” said writer and director John Michael McDonagh. “If you write them well enough, the subtext will come through. It’s a symbolic story. It’s a metaphorical story so people are going to find resonance. Each individual person in the audience will find a resonance in their own lives that might be different than the person sitting next to them. This goes back to story and trying to write involving characters that drive the story own. Then, if it’s a good story, it will make people think what supposedly I’m trying to say. Sometimes, people will say ‘Oh, you meant this or you meant that’ and actually I didn’t. But, it’s a good point. If you’ve taken something (different) out of it then that makes me seem smarter than I am. If you’ve written a story that’s rich then people will always come up with different versions of that story.”
What follows are a series of events that show the Father descending into the depths of his own soul to find out what he is truly made of questioning whether he should defend himself, flee, or succumb to his fate in the week that follows. Will he allow himself to be sacrificed for the sins of another or will he triumph over it all in the end?
Calvary is moving, getting major props for broaching a story with such heavy central themes in a country that is as ardently Catholic as Ireland.
“It’s heavy, somber, bleak, but with jokes every now and then. I approach writing a script from a viewpoint of creating an interesting character,” said McDonagh. “So, I start with the character first and I place a couple of characters around them and think, ‘Okay, what will be a moving and involving plot?’ It’s only after I’ve done that that I start thinking about the ramifications of the story I’m telling. I try to keep that alive in my mind because I feel that you start to censor yourself if you start thinking about whether this will offend someone. If you’re starting to think this will offend someone you start to be more benign and you start to dilute your story. I try to follow it right through to the end and not to think too much about the ramifications, what’s going to happen and who it’s going to offend. At a certain point, you’re going to offend somebody. So, why not just write what you want to write and let the cards fall where they may.”
Calvary is filled with interesting characters and the emerald-adorned hills of the rugged west coast of Ireland acts as yet another. As Father James makes his travel throughout the week leading up to the realization of fate, this once proud man’s emotions run the gamut between anger, regret remorse, sadness and peace. Though McDonagh attempts to balance out the heavy subject matter with comedic dialogue and circumstances, in the end, director John Michael McDonagh's dark comedy attempt runs completely dark, with enough emotion to keep you on a rollercoaster.
The Shadow League gives Calvary a B-.