Saturday, August 23, 2014
John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a fascinating missed opportunity. Irish Catholic priest Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is threatened with death by a parishioner while he is hearing confession in the opening scene, and the rest of the movie is the story of the week he is given to put his affairs in order before the threat is to be carried out. James is one of two priests in a small community filled with an assortment of souls badly in need of guidance, and McDonagh’s script doesn’t forego any opportunity to give his characters a grievance with either James or with the Church he represents. It’s this overly determined quality that is both the most original element and the biggest problem with Calvary. McDonagh’s script seems to say there isn’t a place for religion in the modern world, no place for the simple healing vision of God’s love that James offers his flock. It’s a fascinating subject, but one that isn’t well served by the script’s offering up a broadly sketched collection of characters who come to feel like the suspects in an Agatha Christie story. When the true purpose of Calvary is revealed the film becomes something lesser, a blunt instrument designed to make the most obvious possible point.
What is a priest for? That’s the question James seems to be asking himself as the week goes on, even if the film as a whole has other things on its mind. James was a late convert to the priesthood, he has a troubled adult daughter (Kelly Reilly) and only became a priest after his wife died. Brendan Gleeson plays James with a palpable weariness, an understanding that his kind may be passing out of the world. It’s an understated performance but one full of deep reserves of both compassion and sometimes self-directed confusion. James doesn’t seem able to do much for those he meets along the way, whether it’s the cynical doctor (Aiden Gillen) or the woman (Orla O’Rourke) who wears sunglasses to mass to hide her bruises. Indeed the movie almost doesn’t have time for all its characters. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of the male hustler (Owen Sharpe) who talks as if he were in a James Cagney movie. The most practical service James performs is the acquisition of a gun for use by an elderly writer (M. Emmet Walsh), but the gun of course ends up figuring in the movie another way. All of these characters, even a murderer (Domhnall Gleason) James visits in prison, are firmly on their own path and listen to the priest out of courtesy as opposed to need. It’s that sense of James’ growing irrelevance that saps Calvary of drama as the week runs out and ultimately makes it less than the sum of its parts.
Calvary wouldn’t feel authentic to its time if the subject of sexual abuse by priests was ignored, and the bind good priests like James are in is well-put in a heartbreaking scene in which a father misunderstands the brief conversation James has with his young daughter. It’s just at the moment when James meets his would-be killer on the beach that it comes clear sexual abuse and culpability are the major subjects of Calvary. A character we’ve barely met is revealed to be both anguished and very articulate, and John Michael McDonagh’s vision of what the Church can be now turns out to be an extremely dark one. In its quest to be relevant Calvary overplays its hand and ends up being a sensationalistic miss.