Brendan Gleeson, Dylan Moran and Chris O'Dowd star in a thoughtful Catholic comedy-drama
Brendan Gleeson and John Michael McDonagh reteam following lacklustre 2011 comedy The Guard in this much more thoughtful examination of Catholic guilt. They're joined by the cream of Irish film and TV talent, including Chris O'Dowd, Dylan Moran, Aidan Gillen and Gleeson's son, Domhnall.
Gleeson Sr plays Father James, the kind of priest who gives the Catholic church a good name: wise, witty, kind, non-judgemental, unpious and not without a few demons of his own. It's his very goodness that makes him a target for assassination, a threat hissed at him by an anonymous parish member during confession: killing a bad priest would be expected, but the death of a good priest, to atone for the sins of the Church – that would make a statement.
As James spends his last week 'getting his house in order', we're treated to exceptional performances from all his parishioners: in addition to the aforementioned Irish talent, M Emmett Walsh pops up as an American emigre novelist, while Kelly Reilly is James' London-residing daughter. If anything lets the film down slightly, it's the sometimes unsubtle symbolism that underlies each of James' relationships: the Church in relation to science (in the shape of Gillen's doctor), to finance (Moran's monied land-owner), to homosexuality (Owen Sharpe's rent boy, somewhat out of place in a rural parish).
Still, the aforementioned performances shine in bringing to life McDonagh's screenplay, which is packed with wit, pathos and subtly powerful face-offs (witness the scene between Gleesons senior and junior, the latter playing a prisoner looking for absolution). Calvary is a reasonably good analysis of Irish Catholicism's role in the age of atheism, but it's much more valuable for its depiction of a good man attempting to live and die by his own set of morals.
Reviewed at Glasgow Film Festival 2014. General release from Fri 11 Apr.