Having seen and loved director John McDonagh’s previous film The Guard, about a morally questionable member of the Irish Garda, I came to Calvary expecting something in the same vein, but with a priest. To be fair, from what I could gather from the trailer and critics, it had all the same component parts: Brendan Gleeson, set in Ireland and a plethora of reviews sporting the phrase ‘dark comedy’ as their pull quotes. Let the good times roll, I thought, as St Augustine’s famous quote, ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned’ appeared on the screen. However, despite having all the same component parts, Calvary is an entirely different, yet nonetheless compelling, beast.
Whilst it’s not untrue that Calvary has darkly humorous elements, if it is to be called a dark comedy it must be recognised that this humour is of a pitch-black variety, the comical moments wrapped in a barbed wire mesh of uncomfortable questions about faith, integrity and the state of the Church in Ireland after the sexual abuse scandals.
Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, a “good priest”, who is visited at confession by an unseen man who tells him he was serially and violently abused as a child by a member of the clergy, and that in revenge, he will kill Father James the following Sunday, so that he has time to ‘get his house in order’. Cue a ‘who will do it’ thriller? Not as such. Rather, Father James goes about his priestly business, and we meet the members of this bleak corner of County Sligo, all of whom taunt, insult or disparage him in one way or another, and each equally capable of being the potential killer. And yet they all turn up to Church, their disingenuous faith pointing towards the incongruous role of the Church in a community that would appear to despise it, but nonetheless goes through the motions of respecting it.
The richness of these characters owes a lot to its stellar cast; Calvary features pretty much all the Irish big names, many of whom are better known for their work in comedies, such as Dylan Moran and Chris O’Dowd. However, their existence in the film as deeply troubled characters yet again wrong-foots an audience expecting Bernard Black or Roy from the IT Crowd.
Dylan Moran, who plays spiritually-void banker Michael Fitzgerald, features in a particularly memorable scene involving Holbein’s The Ambassadors, famous for its anamorphic skull. Indeed, death permeates throughout this film, both quite literally in the plot line of ‘will Father James die and who will do it?’ and on a more metaphorical level concerning the characters’ relationships with the Church and the banks, two of the disgraced pillars of modern-day Ireland. Gleeson himself does a spectacular job of embodying the calm, affable and thick-skinned priest whilst at the same time incorporating a roguish violent streak. A very complex character, Father James provokes more questions than he answers.
However, none of this is to say that the film’s darkness is overwhelming. McDonagh’s script still bristles with his characteristic razor-sharp and at times acerbic dialogue, which if not working to lighten the heavy themes being dealt with, provides relief from the darker moments. A reviewer from the Catholic Herald said that ‘[s]ome might find all of this too edgy, but others will laugh uproariously (I did)’, but I feel the Catholic Herald may have missed the point somewhat. There is nothing black and white about Calvary, humour and morality included, and therefore the laugh out loud moments are few and far between. Yet what it offers is a complex presentation of a country still reeling from the ruin of two of its most influential institutions in an elegant and considered manner, allowing for some wry smiles along the way.