Let’s begin with this: Calvary is every bit as good as In Bruges, which is pretty damn good. Director John Michael McDonagh captures a similar subtle, dark humour; fans of his brother’s 2008 picture are sure to be impressed. Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, a good-natured priest, living under the impenetrable shadow cast by the paedophilic actions of others in his profession. When his life is threatened by an irreparably scarred victim of past sexual abuse, James attempts to continue his duty of care towards his parish, a task so often thankless and resented.
Gleeson’s becollared head appears alone in a chaplain confessional as a bodiless voice informs him nonchalantly of his intention to murder Father James in one week’s time. The film touches on a wide pool of social issues at various points in the narrative — the role of religion in modern Ireland, the nature of morality, the hollowness of wealth, to name but a few — but Calvary is essentially about a week in the life of one man, in what may be his final days.
Our understanding of Father James develops entirely under the threat of his looming death, which makes for a disconcertingly intimate character study. We assume Gleeson’s character is a good guy, and the would-be-murderer is quick to admit that James numbers among the innocent of the church’s recruits. To this, the assassin simply reasons, what would be worse for the church — to take revenge against a guilty priest, or one of the innocent?
Calvary is not exactly a thriller, despite the macabre deadline that Father James has been given; it feels less a building of suspense towards an ultimate climax, and more a mounting sense of injustice that strikes us as the narrative progresses. Gleeson’s face looks like a hug; a slightly crumpled, tired kind of hug, but a soft and welcoming one. Eyes weary with concern, he looks, as one character suggests, like he carries the weight of the world upon his shoulders, and I do believe that Gleeson is subsequently beyond perfection in this role.
A particularly poignant scene involves an arson attack on the church — just one of the torments Father James endures throughout the week. As the townsfolk gather to watch the church burn in its lonely spot above the town, the firelight seems to have a strangely revealing effect. There is a sense of impending change, that the flames will give birth to a new period of darkness. James’ anguish certainly begins to intensify at this point, and his steadfast resolution to maintain a business-as-usual attitude begins to crumble under the weight of his tormenter’s wrath.
Although Gleeson’s performance shines brightest, Calvary’s brilliance owes much to its supporting cast, who are responsible for many comic moments in these pretty bleak surroundings (the confusion of the butcher, Jack, between bi-polar disorder and lactose intolerance, for instance). Superbly acted across the board, the array of characters in this small community allows for an admittedly exaggerated, yet honest exploration of the landscape in modern Ireland today.
Cleverer than those around him, purer, caring and constant, Father James’ self-sacrificial attitude really drives home the horror of this film. When the church burns to the ground, we are struck by the despair etched onto James’ face. As much as this despair is for the church as an institution, it is more for this one building — a symbol of the good life he has pledged to lead, the good life into which he has tried to lead his neighbours. I, along with many others, may have been guilty of condemning the entire church due to the revelations of recent years, but Calvary (and Father James in particular) makes me ashamed to have made such generalisations.