Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Calvary (Movie Review)

By Freda Cooper 09.04.2014

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action!

Calvary (UK Rating: 15)

A week is a long time for the priest at the centre of John Michael McDonagh's latest, Calvary. He has been told that's all he's got left.  He is not dying, though; he is going to be killed, despite not doing anything wrong.

It is one of the ironies at the heart of this blackest of black comedies - so black that the laughs are thin on the ground. Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is told he's going to die during confession, so the threat hanging over his head for the following week probably comes from one of his parishioners. Unable to tell anybody, he has just seven days to put his life in order, and the pressure increases. His church is torched, his dog is killed, and things go from bad to worse.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Calvary (Movie Review)

While the priest has death hanging over him, his would-be assassin's motive is buried deep in an issue which still hangs over the Roman Catholic Church - child abuse. It is made very clear from the outset. The killer's first line provokes uncomfortable laughter, but the next ones produce a total, shocked silence that reveal the full horror of his experiences as a child. This abrupt and stark change in tone recurs regularly, both in the dialogue and editing, which becomes increasingly effective as the film reaches its climax.

Who is behind the death threat, then? There are a number of likely suspects but, as the days in Father James' last week are ticked off the calendar, the killer's identity is of secondary importance. The focus is on the priest and his efforts to prepare for death, and to continue to minister to his flock. A complex lot they are, too - an alcoholic millionaire who treats the fruits of his wealth with utter contempt; a cuckolded butcher, his own daughter, recovering from a suicide attempt; and a reclusive, curmudgeonly writer. There is even his fellow priest, Father Timothy, who has no understanding of people whatsoever, and who should, as James eventually tells him, have been an accountant.

While the audience watches all this, it desperately hopes that he's not going to die after all. It seems so unjust that a caring and humane man should have such a fate through no fault of his own. He is made more endearing by the fact that he was married before entering the priesthood, became a father (hence the daughter), and goes through the trauma of his wife's death before turning to the priesthood. Brendan Gleeson's performance as James towers over the film, with his past and present lives etched on his weary yet compassionate face. It lingers long after the credits have rolled, a face that's probably seen too much of life, belonging to somebody with plenty of weaknesses, and who never suggests he has all the answers. It is a superb piece of acting.

Now, with death staring him the face, he is a good man facing dark forces; not only is there the possibility of his own murder, but also his daughter's attempted suicide and the problems of the village, which include domestic violence, racism, and bereavement. Life piles on the pressure during seven days, yet, although the audience is told on screen which day it is, it's done with subtlety, and time slips by, in much the same way as it would for the priest contemplating his possible fate.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Calvary (Movie Review)

Set and filmed on the windswept coast of Western Ireland, Calvary is also littered with references to the Old West. The headline on a newspaper referring to the area as Ireland's Wild West acts as the springboard. When Father James admits he liked alcohol too much in the days before he was a priest, it signposts he will slip off the wagon and things will get nasty - just like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven - and, on his day of reckoning, his walk down the main street of the deserted village echoes High Noon.

[score=8]Shot through with bleak humour and some wonderfully dry lines, Calvary keeps its surprises up its sleeve and delivers them with shocking speed. Do not expect to laugh out loud too much, but do expect to be impressed by Brendan Gleeson, in one of the best pieces of post-award season acting this year.

Calvary is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday, 11th April.

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