It’s hard not to view the works of John Michael McDonagh in the context of his younger brother Martin. Both of their debut features rejoiced in anti-PC humour and swearisms, and both heavily featured the stoic, ham-faced charm of Brendan Gleeson. John Michael’s The Guard managed to hold its own in the end, with its clever take on the Old Hat buddy cop sub-genre distancing itself from the younger McDonagh’s purgatorious masterpiece In Bruges. Calvary is a different story, though, and the older McDonagh’s difficult second film treads very close indeed to the theater work of his younger sibling, but never quite manages to match it.
Gleeson is back once more, this time as Father James Lavelle, a Catholic priest in a rural Irish village. Things aren’t going too well for the Father, and the film kicks off with a member of his congregation threatening to murder him mid-Confession. That’s right, a priest being threatened with murder in the Confessional – sound familiar? The Martin McDonagh comparisons don’t end there, with Gleeson’s exasperated priest faced with a town that all but ignore most of his teachings, proving very reminiscent of Father Walsh/Welsh from the Leenane Trilogy. There is even a point (I thought it was a knowing wink, but John Michael later admitted it was a freak accident) where a character mentions their father was killed in a hunting accident, all but begging the McDonagh fans in the audience to recall the setup of The Lonesome West.
But while the younger McDonagh’s stage work is beautifully paced and written with a razor sharp wit, Calvary is plagued with poorly written peripheral characters and a second act so baggy and eventless that I caught myself on the verge of nodding off on more than a couple of occasions. Characters like Dylan Moran’s wealth-soaked playboy are mere sketches, rather than the fully fleshed individuals that this kind of dialogue driven cinema demands, and McDonagh’s evident reluctance to write emotionally charged scenes are laid bare in Gleeson’s semi-clunky interactions with his criminally underwritten daughter (Kelly Reilly).
Yet. every time the whole thing threatens to go off the rails, it is inevitably Gleeson – an old pro and an incredibly underrated actor to boot – who hauls it back on track. While the ensemble is pretty fragile, Father James Lavelle is a brilliantly written character, and Gleeson inhabits every brow-beaten, tragically loving inch of him. He is the guy who keeps us emotionally invested in the doldrums of Calvary‘s middle third, and it is the utter believability of every facet of his character that makes the film’s phenomenally operatic ending so hard-hitting.
Tonally, Calvary is about as black as you can get – and I mean black. There’s much less humour here than in The Guard, and when jokes are dropped they tend to be the kind that hurt as much as they amuse. It’s a fundamentally bleak tale of a man becoming gradually more tortured by the specter of his impending death, and McDonagh draws a brooding Gothicism from the Irish landscape, turning its windswept vistas into an unexpectedly cinematic beauty spot. It’s intelligent filmmaking if nothing else, based on a unique premise and made with an eye that would make the Irish Tourist Board all weak at the knees. Calvary is certainly something a little different for those looking to stray from the beaten path.
I’m not going to lie – I expected more from the film. With this director, this cast and this bold a premise, I was promised a movie that would stick with me for years to come. Unfortunately, I can’t see Calvary doing that. In fact, I can’t see much of it – barring a couple of memorable moments – sticking with me even for the coming weeks. It’s well-made, well-acted and a unique prospect amid the inevitable pre-summer wave of cinematic dross, but a bit of a letdown nonetheless.
Calvary treads worryingly close to the theater work of John Michael McDonagh's younger sibling, and never quite lives up to such lofty standards.