John Michael McDonagh is doing a nice job of differentiating himself from Martin, his eminent brother, writer and director of In Bruges and Seven Psycopaths. John Michael himself also has a previous success to fall back on, in the shape of 2011’s brilliant The Guard, which starred Brendan Gleeson as an awful Irish policeman dealing with interference from Don Cheadle as an American agent. Now the writer and director reunite with Brendan Gleeson for Calvary, sharing a few themes with that film, but largely a more serious, thoughtful piece. Gleeson’s character is the antithesis of his role in The Guard.
The foul-mouthed copper is replaced by a mild priest, thoroughly kind, despite antagonists’ attempts to provoke him, living in peace in a small Irish town of County Sligo. The film opens with a threat, or rather a promise, made to this Father James in confession – that the man on the other side of the screen will kill James in one week’s time. This threat coincides with the arrival of his estranged daughter (Kelly Reilly), in an attempt at reconciliation, and the film follows him on a day-by-day basis as he attempts to prepare for the event he’s been warned of, all the while dealing with the tribulations of his ‘congregation’, such as they are. In this group of people there is a roll-call of moderately successful Irish television actors, from Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd), and Dylan Moran (Black Books) to Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones) , and all do well with their material (though Gillen’s delivery is as hard to pin down as it is in Thrones – is it deliberately off?).
As the noose begins to tighten around his neck, and Father James’ few dear possessions are brought under threat, the strain starts to take its toll, and Gleeson does a phenomenal job of relaying the pressure Father James feels. When, at only a few points, this pressure breaks through, the emotions are raw and affecting. Where The Guard was raucous and pointed, but ultimately not a terribly serious film, Calvary is a picture with a serious core. The would-be murderer explains in his opening dialogue with James that as a child he was abused by an Irish Priest “orally and anally, as they say”, and that he will kill James not because he too committed pederasty, but because he didn’t – a non-revenge killing will get more attention. The not universally unfair, but nonetheless callously unjust logic this applies to James’ Catholicism is brutal, and the futility it inspires in him is visible onscreen. That he is so kind a character only makes it more wrenching when we see him weighing up his very limited options, some of which will dehumanise him too. The filming of Calvary is naturalistic at times, with the beautiful surrounds of Sligo lending a bleakness and forlorn look which the film scarcely needed help with, while every so often a clearly deliberately framed shot pops up, long enough to warrant pondering and observation. If John Michael McDonagh continues like this, he might well start to muscle in on his brother’s ground as Ireland’s preeminent screenwriter.