|Brendan Gleeson is riveting as Father James in John Michael McDonagh's Calvary.|
Growing up Catholic, I viewed the priests as stoic men that stood on a pedestal far removed from the common parishioners. There were a few exceptions, but most didn’t seem like everyday people. Part of this feeling was due to the ritualistic nature of the Catholic Mass. The priests rarely went off script, and even the sermons didn’t connect too much with normal life. I only viewed a small part of their daily routines, however. The priests certainly spoke with many on a personal level each day. We observe that side of the job from Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in Calvary. He says Mass but spends most of his time just talking to people. There’s remarkable value in a guy who’s just there to listen. James is a good priest trying to help others, but that doesn’t mean he’s perfect and has no doubts. The battle to keep the faith is constant, especially in the face of dour circumstances.
On the surface, Calvary is the story of a priest dealing with a direct threat on his life during a confession. What’s surprising is how little time is spent on the impending murder; it hangs over every moment yet rarely makes a direct impact. Being told he’ll be dead on Sunday has affected James, obviously. How could it not? Even so, he goes about his daily work and tries to help residents deal with various problems. James listens to them and doesn’t judge, which is rare for anyone. He counsels a teen who’s frustrated with his struggles with girls and wants to join the army. It’s clear from the open way people talk to James that he isn’t your normal priest. He felt the calling after his wife died, so James isn’t a guy who’s never experienced anything.
Hanging over each interaction is the sexual abuse that went unchecked in the Catholic Church for decades. The death threat against James comes from a guy who was abused as a seven-year-old and has never recovered. People use the scandals to take shots at James and try to diminish his value. They know that it strikes a chord because it signifies a flaw in the vocation. James believes his good work is separate from the institution, yet he recognizes it’s hardly a flawless enterprise. He sees the lack of integrity in his counterpart Father Leary (David Wilmot) and lashes out in a drunken fury. James is an alcoholic who’s been sober for a long time, but the stress may be too much to take. When he slips off the wagon, it’s a long fall and reveals anger lurking beneath the surface.
Brendan Gleeson has an imposing screen presence, and it’s a revelation to see him dial back the intensity. Calvary is his second collaboration with Director John Michael McDonagh; Gleeson also starred in his debut film The Guard. While that effort was more of a black comedy, both share an emphasis on character that suits Gleeson’s style. He deserves more starring roles, and it’s refreshing to see him lead such an intriguing story. The quiet moments where James walks in the gorgeous Irish countryside reveal plenty about his approach. He’s battling demons from his past, and the peaceful time keeps him on track. Gleeson might not seem right to play a priest, but it’s an easy sell given James’ genuine person. He experienced plenty before donning the vestments and brings that experience to his vocation.
|Brendan Gleeson and Kelly Reilly are easily believable as father and daughter.|
A major difference with James is the fact that he was married and had a daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). Following his wife’s death, he became a priest and drifted apart from Fiona. She returns to town after a failed suicide attempt, and it’s an important time to re-connect. McDonagh’s script avoids melodrama and underplays past difficulties between them. Fiona shares her father’s outspoken style, yet she’s broken and trying to recover. Gleeson and Reilly reveal the quiet bond of family that doesn’t require detailed explanations. James sees Fiona’s wrist and understands her trauma just by looking at her face. Fiona is a bystander to much of the action, but her presence sets the stage for his final decision. Making peace with Fiona ensures that James is ready to face the fate that awaits him.
Calvary feels lighter because of a stellar cast of supporting players that bring nuance to small roles. Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Domhall Gleeson, Marie-Josée Croze, and the great M. Emmet Walsh shine with minimal screen time and create a lived-in environment. A few eccentric characters are less convincing, particularly Owen Sharpe’s Leo and Orla O’Rourke’s Veronica. Even so, each has a brief moment where their character’s bluster is shown to mask other issues. Despite some heavy material, the tone stays light and avoids feeling like a funeral. The final scenes have a Western vibe as James steps onto the beach for the last stand. Gleeson’s face shows complacency that’s been missing until this moment. With the strikingly bleak landscape surrounding James, McDonagh creates a gripping finale. Gleeson delivers one of his best performances, and his convincing presence carries this engaging film.