In hindsight, The Guard seems almost frivolous. John Michael McDonagh’s first film earned plenty of accolades, and also its 15 certificate. It’s a film that, when leaving the cinema, I heard several people say was ‘very Irish’. While Brendan Gleeson’s character in The Guard came from a place of frustration, with McDonagh wanting to create an extreme character, in Calvary Father James Lavelle is a good man. A good priest. In Ireland. Surrounded by a ‘Barabbas’ baying mob.
Calvary is a film that, when leaving the cinema, I heard someone describe as ‘Ireland: the movie’.
It was me, admittedly, but sometimes it’s hard contriving a through-line for a review.
I have never been to Ireland, by the way, and Calvary isn’t solely rewarding if you have, but certainly the impression I was left with was of ‘This is Ireland – at this time – in microcosm’. It addresses the priesthood and the growing distrust of it, the financial situation, and presents you with a spate of bereft characters. The flock of James Lavelle are deliberately left under-explained, the vacancies in their life hinted at, their cynicism with the status quo writ large.
It’s a more haunting and horrifying film than The Guard. There’s human warmth to be found, especially in Gleeson’s performance and Lavelle’s relationship with his daughter, but all around them is mostly cold cynicism.
The observation of human cruelty is occasionally hilarious, but always darkly so. Mainly, the inhabitants of the Sligo village are the embodiment of a Hobbesian nihilism, regarding life as nasty, brutish and pointless. They’re disillusioned, and the only person trying to combat this is Lavelle. His attempts are not appreciated. In an interview with the New York Times Gleeson commented ‘There’s a duty to maintain the belief that things can be good’ in relation to parenting, while noting that there’s a lot of reasons for feelings of betrayal and despondency in Ireland at the moment.
In the context of the film, Dylan Moran’s banker reflects the idea of Ireland as a microcosm, and the local victim of a paedophile priest who intends to kill Lavelle. While Lavelle is a good man, he’s tainted by association. Even if McDonagh’s stated intention was to do the opposite of what people do, and make a film about a good priest, the Church in general is presented unsympathetically. David Wilmot’s spineless Father Leary is like a Nolanised Father Dougal. The loveable stupidity has been replaced by an inept and ungrounded idealism. The pub owner, Brendan Lynch, voices a very real anger about the Church that Lavelle isn’t able to deny.
It’s not, then, an easy watch. Pitch-black humour, Biblical references and unflinching depictions of casual cruelty are never going to be. Calvary‘s main strength is that, like The Guard, it grounds these beneath a likeable central pairing. Gleeson and McDonagh don’t make Lavelle clean cut, even if he emerges a hero, and Kelly Reilly’s cornerstone performance is enough to distract from the idea that her character feels heavily driven by narrative necessity.
While it’s richly thematic, the meta-references that McDonagh enjoys may grate on some viewers, especially when he uses the technique to undercut the big emotional scenes. It’s also very much a thought-provoking, pay-attention-it’s-all-important kind of film. This makes it ideally suited to Blu-ray, though. Visually, there are transitional scenes featuring overcast scenery and churning seas, and Patrick Cassidy’s soundtrack manages to move you without feeling manipulative. Mainly, though, it’s a film that you can watch many times and spot new things in, and as such is worth regularly revisiting.
‘This film couldn’t take place anywhere except Ireland’ says Isaach de Bankole, although the reason he gives for this is that everybody in the movie drinks.
The extras consist solely of interviews with the cast, who are fulsome but qualified in their praise of McDonagh (‘John can be difficult’, says Gary Lydon, and H Emmet Walsh smiles as he recalls the director’s response to questions about his character), but they’re not uniform in their interpretations of the material, and it’s interesting to see their different approaches to small roles and how much thought they’ve put into them.
While this seems a slight package in terms of what you would expect from Blu-ray extras, it’s all the film really needs. Every speaking role gets an interview, and every actor expands on their role enthusiastically. The result is the meat of the film being discussed and dissected, and that the extras lack superfluous bumph. The absence of McDonagh as an interview subject or commentator isn’t a problem, as you still get a keen sense of him from the interviews. His presence lingers over everything, and you get a real sense of his working methods.
FYI, the ‘Play All’ button is on the second page of the interviews list, which’ll save you about a minute of your life to do other things in. Don’t say Den Of Geek isn’t giving you all the support it can.
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