Calvary (2014)

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An almost bleak yet sometimes funny curtain opener on faith, humanity and life. Only the second pairing of director John Michael McDonagh and star Brendan Gleeson but a duo that I do hope to see more of as they have already mastered a more comic affair with ‘The Guard’ and now this 2014 film shines in an oddly bright way on a dark brooding sense of fate.

In County Sligo, a small town priest called Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) works and does a lot of good in trying to help anyone and everyone in the place. One Sunday however after hearing a confession of a dark past he gets told that he will be killed the following Sabbath to compensate for the sins of another priest. The week that comes sees him reunite with his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) and come to terms with the ways and beliefs of the folk around him.

The look of the film first of all is near to breathtaking, making this minute little location seem at once quaint and also foreboding. That is with credit to cinematographer Larry Smith who captures the lie of the land with beauty and sweeping shots of pastures and sea to reaffirm the grace of life but the harshness that comes along with it also. The very opening shots are more stunning but then as the story has progressed and we see days counting down and hills or beaches alongside the new dawn it becomes a fearful symbol of the countdown Father James is facing.

Music is used to a subtle short degree in the story but it works in building that ominous feeling, the dread of what is to come. An inevitable shred of rising tension in the score does enough to coincide with the 7 day clock given to the title character. It’s a powerful thing not to overly rely on music to mould the audiences feelings to what you desire them to feel and Patrick Cassidy uses that well in letting silence speak volumes in certain moments. Of course that decision is down to the directing prowess of McDonagh who must know that a lack of music in places can bring about an elevated feeling of doom. The Friday section of the film when Father James is at the pub is one such scenario where you can almost taste the tension, it all suddenly loses any jolly hope as we now face a more unstable priest and an an untrustworthy clientele in the pub.

John Michael McDonagh really does have a knack for crafting beautifully edgy stories and follows through with this talent in his direction too. The story is sometimes tragic and despairing but it also has glimmers of hope and love and the father/daughter relationship is touching and believable. The obvious route of sins and priests of the church is never really explored and that’s great as it reverts the stereotype and turns Father James into an icon of good, a more worrying sad note as we come to realise his life is being threatened. The scene between him and an imprisoned murderer is a point that really delves into the theme of faith and what the presence of God can mean to people. It’s a story about faith that never rams a message of religion down the throat, it brushes along fine moments of comedy but it truly is a step into the darker deeper realms for McDonagh and he deals with the style fantastically.

Brendan Gleeson is a tremendous actor and he plays the main role with comfort and intensity. You are on his side for the majority and he palms off lines of wit and intelligence to supporting cast with perfect timing to set up his Father as a well read, smart and quick witted man. That’s where the bleak humour settles in but when Gleeson gets his teeth into the later stages of the character he truly does just that. It’s an impressive performance and one that presents Father James with strokes of vulnerability, kindness, soul and warmth. There’s a great roster of other players to the film who are all set up as possibilities of the confessioner in the beginning, this gifts the film a whodunit or who will do it gild and lets the townspeople act with a way of letting a sinister or odd side show to leave you wondering if they are the one wanting to kill Father James.

The slight problem unfortunately comes at the peak of the film concerning the Sabbath showdown, where a bad timed shot of continuity failure took me out of the moment but honestly aside from this the film is a level up from ‘The Guard’ and deals with issues of the Church and right and wrong with a rich and clever hand.

A skillful dark tale with small elements of comedy that help weave a very interesting, atmospheric story of faith led with ease and conviction by Gleeson.

8.5/10

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