The first pairing of Brendon Gleeson with writer/director John Michael McDonagh resulted in something of a treat: the hugely entertaining, occasionally bumpy The Guard. Bustling with brilliant lines and grounded by an excellent turn from Gleeson, it’s a film that holds more than steady on repeated viewings.
The pair’s reunion, in Calvary, finds neither looking to retread old ground. Whilst not short of sprinkles of wit, this is a darker piece of work, but no less well told. Gleeson this time takes the role of a priest, Father James Lavelle, who we discover is a heart of good in a society of troubled people. In fact, one of them, right at the start of the film, reveals that he’s going to kill Father Lavelle during confession. We don’t know the identity of said confessor, but as the film goes on, there’s no shortage of candidates who emerge.
That said, Calvary is far from a whodunnit. Instead, McDonagh is more interested in exploring the bleakness surrounding the inhabitants of a small town in Ireland, and how they interact with a priest who is fundamentally good. Those characters, played by Chris O’Dowd and Aiden Gillen amongst others, challenge Lavelle in differing ways, testing both his commitment and that innate goodness.
Much was said in the build up to Calvary being released about McDonagh wanting to go against the darker representation of priesthood in modern cinema. As such, whilst Lavelle has a daughter – played by Kelly Reilly – she was born before he was ordained. That’s not to say that Lavelle doesn’t face significant questions throughout the film – beyond the identity of his potential killer – as his faith is inevitably called into question.
So then: permission to go for one of those ‘in lesser hands’ conversations? Because this is a review that needs it.
There are ingredients ingrained within Calvary that require a deep holding of nerve, along with sufficient confidence to balance out the humanity, the humour and the darkness. And crucially, Calvary demands a central performance that both the audience can engage with, and the film can channel its themes and questions through.
Calvary boasts, to date, the best performance of Brendon Gleeson’s career. He is simply outstanding. As Lavelle struggles to hold onto what’s important to him, and tries to find light in the characters he meets, Gleeson opts to keep his portrayal as calm, measured and restrained as the role demands. It seems a bit churlish to demand his acting here deserves awards attention, because it’s a piece of work that excels no matter how many gongs come Gleeson’s way. Bluntly though, it’s hard to think of anyone who could have done this anywhere near as well.
Calvary marks a slightly different path for John Michael McDonagh too. There’s perhaps an argument that his film loses just a little momentum in the middle, but this is concentrated, dark drama for long periods, lightened slightly by being centred around a generally upbeat character. The society that the film explores is rosy on the surface, but inevitably less pleasant underneath. And McDonagh doesn’t flinch in exploring it.
Gleeson and McDonagh, independently, have no shortage of talent. Together? They’re a perfect pairing.
Too often we read comments that modern cinema doesn’t cater for grown-ups, that it doesn’t offer accessible films willing to intelligently discuss things that matter. Calvary does. It’s not perfect, and The Guard 2 it absolutely isn’t. But it’s anchored by a central performance that comfortably bridges any cracks, and for that and many other reasons, it turns out to be one of the best films of the year so far.
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