John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a dark film. It opens with a confession between Father James (Brendan Gleeson) and a member of the public. It’s an emotional discussion, that culminates in Father James being informed that he is going to be killed. It is right here where we learn of the character of Father James.
He is generally well liked within his community, but it’s made quite clear that the community isn’t particulalry friendly. The cinematography is dark, but the surroundings are tranquil, quaint and generally rather attractive. Father James’ constituency is a farily tight-knit area, where everyone seems to know of each other, but it isn’t the most religious area. People seem to share a general unease of Catholicism in Calvary, but as I said above, Father James is well known in the area, with plenty of supporters alongside his critics.
The film doesn’t play as a straightforward whodunnit mystery. Sure, you spend the whole time trying to piece together who might want to kill Father James, but no one seems to have any good reason. Instead, we learn that James is an important figue in the community, who always answers any questions he is given. He is someone who goes round to people’s houses to see if they’re alright. He’s just quite a nice guy.
The things that happen to him are not. He has a troubled past, and has only recently turned to God, since the passing of his wife. His family life was fairly troubled too. He was a drunkard, with a runaway daughter. Through it all though, he found God, and the solace of helping other people despite his own personal pain. It’s seemingly completely random that anyone would want to kill him.
Calvary is a very good character study. We see how Father James copes with the situation he finds himself in. He is told exactly where to go and when to meet his end, and his stubborn attitude doesn’t allow him to leave, despite the horrible things that happen to him in the week leading up to the date of his death. Brendan Gleeson is magnificent in his role as Father James. He portrays the broken man who has turned to God very well. He is strong-willed, opinionated and not a stickler for the rules. He has undying faith, even when the going gets tough.
Things do get very tough for Father James too. Sometimes the film gets extremely dark. Calvary isn’t an unpleasant film to watch though. This is a dark comedy. While the script may be leant more towards drama than comedy, there are definitely some funnier moments throughout the film. These moments help to cheer up the otherwise rather sombre mood of the piece. The comedy is fairly subtle, which really works for the film largely about how a man copes with a threat against his very life.
There are some duller moments in the film, as you’d expect from a dark character study. A couple of the side-plots feel a tad unnecessary, detracting slightly from the main meat of the film. The side-plots do allow for further character study, and they do let us know of everyone in the community, but just one or two don’t really add anything particularly necessary.
The acting from all, no matter the size of their role, was impressive. This is a film full of powerful performances, but it is Brendan Gleeson and Dylan Moran who steal the show. Moran’s Michael Fitzgerald isn’t a religious man, but he does worry a lot about his soul. He wants to give a lot of money to the church, as that would make him feel a lot better about himself, as no one really likes him. He is a lonely man, a sad man who happens to have a lot of money. His meetings with Father James are expertly handled. They are powerful encounters between two broken men, one with nothing to lose, and one with everything to gain.
The pay-off at the end of Calvary isn’t the best however. When you find out who wants to kill him and why, it all feels a little underwhelming compared to the rest of the film. You won’t necessarily expect who wants to kill him, but his reason why is too predictable. It’s sad that his reasoning is predictable, and it’s sad that it didn’t carry the same emotional weight as the rest of the film. His reasoning is just as dark as the rest of the film, but it didn’t feel revolutionary, despite how horrible it is. Perhaps if this film was made around ten years ago, the ending would’ve carried much more weight.
More dark than comedy, Calvary provides a strong character study of a Catholic Priest with his life in danger. It does very well at showing us what he and his community are like, with a strong script backed up by powerful acting. It can get very dark, and at times it is a little dull, but it is a solid, dark character study well worth a watch if you’re in the mood.