Calvary (2014) Movie Review

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Today is Sunday, so what better day than this to focus once again on the McDonagh brothers (The Pillowman/In Bruges), or actually, just 1 brother.  Martin McDonagh may have helped John Michael is creating The Guard, but in this instance (and not the 1st), John Michael is working alone.  This is his 3rd film as a director (2nd feature film), and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was rated a bit lower by viewers due to what might have been expected when they went to see it.  So, Calvary.  How was it?

Calvary is set in a sleepy seaside village off the coast of County Sligo (the name of the village isn’t mentioned, but this is where the film was mostly shot) and revolves around the Village Priest, Father James (played brilliantly by Brendan Gleeson).  While in a confessional with a church-goer, James is told the story of this man’s dramatic childhood.  1 that involves priests and little boys, with the man being 1 of the little boys.  After telling this horrifying story, the church-goer then tells James that he is going to kill him.  Not because he’s a bad priest, because the priest who did the horrible things to him died long ago.  But because James is a good priest, and it would send shock waves throughout the community, the country and even the Catholic church.  James is then told that he has a week to prepare, and to meet the church-goer on the beach next sunday (7 days away).  The film then focuses on James’ life within the week leading up to meeting this man on the beach.

What is really interesting about Calvary, is that it has a surprisingly deceiving trailer, and then it ended up being a very good film despite this.  If you come into this film with the hope and desire for it to be like In Bruges or The Guard, you might only get, at most, about 40% of what you’re looking for in terms of pure laughs.  Does that mean there is no comedy in Calvary?  No!  There’s plenty of comedy, and it’s as black and Irish as ever.  But this isn’t a film that you walk away from saying “That was hilarious”.  Instead what you will remember are its various themes, characters, character interactions, story, tone, emotion…You know…things that are important in other McDonagh brother projects, but not as heavily amplified.

Throughout the film, Father James interacts with a variety of characters who, within the context of the film’s themes, give different perspectives.  A key theme throughout the film focuses on, believe it or not, religious stereotypes, hypocrisy, and the thoughts and feelings that the community has towards “Men of God” following those terrible scandals.  We’re presented with some great sins of the Roman Catholic church, such as the paedophilia that some priests were involved in.  But an important presentation is how it smears every other priest, including those who are like Father James.  So, what is Father James like, since he’s the main character?  He is as the church-goer said; a good priest.  As a man who was once married, is a father, but also a widower, there is a very mature and warm humanity about him, even within his sadness and anger.  The villagers have put him in a box, suggesting that he is this or he is that, and judging him by their experiences of Catholicism itself, rather than approaching him as an individual.  He tries not to judge anybody, and yet they call him judgemental for wanting to stop a love triangle that also has domestic abuse mixed in…abuse possibly caused by the secret lover and not the husband.  As a man who rarely drinks and once had a problem with it, he is treated venomously as being holier-than-thou.  As a man who had a daughter with a wife before he became a priest after his wife’s death, he is seen as a hypocrite for not being celibate.  And these are among numerous reasons he seems to have problems.

The cast of Calvary feels quite close to being a little bit of a who’s-who in Irish acting, and if it had Colin Farrell it would almost be like a complete set.  It also had some english actors, an american and an Ivorian.  Along with Brendan Gleeson you also have Chris O’Dowd (IT Crowd & Moone Boy) as Jack Brennan, the insecure and passive village butcher whose wife is having an affair, and yet he lets it happen, believing “It’s better this way”.  Aidan Gillen (Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in Game Of Thrones) plays the village doctor Frank Harte and is an atheist who challenges James from time to time.  Dylan Moran (Black Books) plays Michael Fitzgerald, the richest man in town who accomplished his goal of becoming rich, and then is left with no meaning or quality to his life (His scenes with James are great!).  It also had Gary Lydon (who played Detective Ariel in the play Pillowman) as Inspector Stanton, the policeman.  David Wilmot as Father Leary, the other priest who is everything the village thinks is wrong with Father James.  Kelly Reilly (Who played Mary Watson in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies) is Father James’ daughter Fiona Lavelle, a suicidal 30-something woman who felt like she lost both of her parents when James left to become a priest.  Orla O’Rourke plays Veronica Brennan, Jack the Butcher’s cheating wife.  Isaach De Bankole is Simon, the Ivorian car mechanic who is Veronica’s addiction on the side.  And of course, The Writer, played by character-acting legend M.Emmet Walsh, an actor who is part of the late Roger Ebert’s Stanton-Walsh Rule, where “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M.Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.”  The Writer is suicidal and very ill, but looks to finish his book before he goes.  The acting was very good from everybody with a few stand-outs and the occasional actor who plays more or less him/herself, which isn’t a bad thing if they’re funny.

The music in Calvary is a mixture between an original score by Patrick Cassidy and several tunes by the likes of Hoagy Carmichael (Hong Kong Blues would go down well in this century.  Interesting note, the physical appearance of Hoagy is what James Bond was originally based on), Flanagan and Allen’s Run Rabbit Run, My name is carnival by Jackson C. Frank and Snake Song by Townes Van Zandt (who appears quite a bit in McDonagh Brother movies).  But for me what really stands out is Patrick Cassidy’s score.  It literally is so, so, beautiful.  To the point of me crying when I listened to it again on its own.  It’s the type of music that settles monsters.  It sounds and feels spiritual, warm, like a big hug.  It even makes me think about this little island that I live on.  An awe-inspiring sound.

The story of Calvary flows to an extent, but it’s not heavily focused on a set goal.  Instead it is more interested in being a chain of conversations, events and a social commentary about humanity’s condition.  Father James goes through some dramatic events throughout the week leading to the showdown on the beach, and the village itself, through their perspectives on life, on God and on religion, provide this metaphorical world perspective full of people whose problems, fears and worries could stem from this 1 subject…about whether they feel loved and accepted by God or not…or whether they feel betrayed by God, through the horrors of everyday life or simply because his representatives have failed them as both men and guidance in their lives.  It is also really interesting to see Irish comedians, who would normally be placed into stories full of comic relief and humour, play more dramatic and touching roles that seem out of character for them.  Which is something you wouldn’t expect, and then it’s carried out really well.  The trailer felt like it would be a mystery for the audience to play when they watch the film for the first time, trying to figure out who the church-goer was.  But then you realise that James already knows who it is…and the mystery stops mattering…and everything else within James’ life becomes more important than his possible assassin.  It’s an example of a movie that is more interested in its journey than its destination.

In terms of production and location, Calvary is 1 of the best looking Irish films I’ve ever seen.  The cinematography is beautifully done, both necessarily and artistically, to the point of being almost subtle.  It also includes a gorgeous shot of the mountain that the village is built at the foot of.  Really lovely.

Would I recommend Calvary?  Very, very much so.  It’s not the funniest McDonagh film, but in its own, bizarre way, within its swearing, drug-use, rude characters and violence – it is 1 of their deepest, purest, most personal and most beautiful films.  Is it dark?  Yes.  But there is a lot of light and beauty in it as well.  It’s a wonderful little Irish film that shows off Brendan Gleeson as an excellent actor.

Acting: ****1/2

Characters: ****3/4

Story: ****1/4

Music: *****

Production/Location: ****3/4

Cinematography: *****

Overall Rating: ****3/4

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