Donnchadh Tiernan checks out John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, which opened the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
The opening line of John Michael McDonagh’s sophomore effort packs such an almighty punch it would be a shame to divulge it here. As a quote from Saint Augustine on the poetic implications of the titular hill fades to the candlelit visage of Brendan Gleeson’s central priest a line of dialogue is delivered with enough weight to shake any audience of expectations for a would-be sequel to 2011’s The Guard. The dialogue of the anonymous confessor continues to outline what will be the framework within which the film will play out; in seven days, having spent their childhood being raped daily by a priest, the faceless victim will shoot Gleeson’s priest, plainly because he, a good priest, being murdered will send a greater message. When Gleeson leaves the booth he seems to know who has threatened him. We, however, do not, and the film commences.
The prime action of the piece is made up of Gleeson’s interactions with locals; characters played by the greatest assembly of Irish and British acting talent since Intermission: Pat Shortt as a Buddhist publican; Dylan Moran as a socially estranged property developer; Chris O’Dowd as the butcher; Kelly Reilly as Gleeson’s suicidal daughter from a pre-orders marriage; Aidan Gillen as an atheistic, nihilistic doctor. The list actually does go on but to give everyone worthy of shout-out here their just deserts would evolve this review to a novella. Everyone available seemingly wanted to appear in this film and once one sniffs out the marrow of the meandering plot it is easy to see why.
The first act of Calvary is the segment that requires the most salt in viewing. What might be biting satire or critique is diluted with Fr. Ted jokes as they might have been written for HBO. McDonagh being cut from the cloth he is the dialogue and structure is ever a comment on the medium and genre itself, in this case such thematic stuff as Song for a Raggy Boy or Sleepers, but considering both the setting and the opening this does not seem enough. As a matter of fact, until Gleeson’s church is burnt to the ground midway through (as seen in the trailer and on the poster), it seems as though the writer-director is shying from the route he initially gestured towards. Then, as flames flicker against the night, the second act reveals a darker side of The Guard’s wry wit and the film dives headlong into murk the previous film only hinted at.
What transpires in the film’s remainder is often heavy drama and is a credit to its cast, particular credit due to Domhnall Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd, the former stepping out of his father’s shadow while sitting across from him, the latter whom will surely be hearing meatier dramatic scripts whacking his hallway floor more regularly in the coming months. This film’s heart, soul and muse, as with The Guard, is undoubtedly the masterful Brendan Gleeson, who communicates the bitterness and flickering hopes of a dying faith with dark weary eyes and reserved gestures.
Any flaws here are minor and aesthetic. The rent-boy Lucky Leo is one caricature too far and Dave McSavage playing a bishop carries too much weight as a cultural reference to work alongside the more serious tones surrounding the role. The cast of characters is, overall, too large to justify and trying to keep up with them at times muddles the plot. Thankfully, McDonagh’s agenda is so potent and engaging that its confidence propels viewer attention along with it at far too ardent a pace to linger on such minor foibles.
With Calvary, McDonagh has completed the sentence he began to utter with The Guard. As an already evident auteur, he loves Ireland (as clearly evidenced by the glorious landscape shots throughout) and despises such Irish institutions as middle-management, bitterness and mob-rule. Were he a pamphleteer, which on a certain level he undoubtedly is, his prime target would be Joe Duffy’s listenership and high-ranking church officials in equal measure. In fact, there is such ample critique of Irish society in the third act it feels as though two films in he may have made his magnum opus. On immediate reflection, not only do I wish to re-watch Calvary soon but I believe it will prove as much of a necessary watch for at least one generation to come as it will be a gripping, funny and moving one for audiences this year. Once again, McDonagh has produced a work impossible to pigeon-hole into any genre, except perhaps “Essential Viewing”.
Calvary screened on Thursday, 13th February 2014 as part of the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (13 – 23 February 2014).