Words by SAMI-JO ADELMAN
John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up to his debut The Guard is a black comedy, starring the stoic Brendan Gleeson as a good priest tormented by his own rural Irish community. Ultimately, it is a darker and far more poignant story than The Guard, and examines familial bonds, morality, Catholicism, and love in all its guises.
It starts in the confessional. A mystery man tells Father James Lavelle (Gleeson) that a Catholic priest sexually abused him as a child, and that he wants revenge. However it is Father James who must take the fall, as the old priest is now dead. “I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent,” the man says. Lavelle’s murder is fixed for next Sunday.
What follows is a round of postmodern Cluedo. Is it the foul-mouthed, filthy rich squire (Dylan Moran), the off kilter, cuckolded local butcher (Chris O’Dowd), the bow tie-laden social incompetent (Killian Scott), or the cold-hearted doctor (Aidan Gillen)? There is a brilliant synergy amongst this bunch of eccentrics. But best of all is Gleeson, who is splendid as the lead. Fired by rage, reason and sadness, he gives an emotionally moving performance throughout, keeping the audience fervently invested in the doldrums of Calvary’s languid second act.
Calvary slithers to its finale, coasting on Gleeson’s palliative demeanor and Larry Smith’s wistful cinematography, indebted to the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, whose earthy colour palette has been well adapted to the screen. Smith successfully captures the weather-beaten terrain of the Atlantic beaches of Sligo, turning Ireland’s windy west coast into a realm of unexpected cinematic majesty.
Tonally however, Calvary is about as black as you can get – and I mean black. Although the script is punctuated by moments of sharp wit, the humour tends to be as spiteful as it is amusing. McDonagh was clearly inspired by the subversive work of the famed Spanish filmmaker Bunuel. His humour is an acquired taste, and at times it is a shade too dark. A post-film block of Cadbury’s or perhaps a scotch on the rocks is definitely necessary.
Calvary will be screened at Sydney Film Festival and will be in cinemas from July 3.
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