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REVIEW: Calvary (John Michael McDonagh – 2014) [Sydney Film Festival]


In a half lit confession chamber we’re introduced to the shaggy endearing face of Brendan Gleeson’s Catholic Priest, Father James Lavelle. During an affronting exchange with a man during this anonymous confessional he receives a death sentence (to be taking place one week later), not for crimes he’s committed, quite the contrary. He’s to be punished for the evil deeds of not only the specific tormentor of the person confessing, but of all the twisted men of the cloth.

Calvary is distinctly different from John Michael McDonagh’s sublime directorial debut The Guard. The title refers to the different stages of grief that you experience in a terminal situation. The seaside town of Easkey in County Sligo, Ireland, forms the setting and the pervasive Benbulbin Mountain casts an ominous shadow over proceedings. The windswept beaches and countryside blanketed with the special kind of green that Ireland landscapes can conjur have a painterly quality for this darkly mysterious situation. McDonagh takes this deeply prescient conversation about the relevance of faith in a modern society and frames it like a noirish ‘whodunnit’.

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

The town is a haven for the unsavoury. Every single parishioner is characterised by an unsettling sketchiness, think the bar scene at the opening of From Dusk Til Dawn seconds before the entire staff reveal their ‘true colours.’ But we’re not dealing with anything cartoonish here; suicide, pedophilia, self-destruction, abusive relationships and the callousness of the rich and wasteful. The incredible ensemble conveying these themes are consistently sensational. Kelly Reilly plays Fiona Lavelle, James’ daughter (he became a man of cloth after the death of his wife), there’s an amazing fragility clouding her spark. Chris O’Dowd flexes unseen dramatic muscles as the abusive and apathetic husband Jack Brennan. Aidan (The Wire and Game of Thrones) Gillen plays the crass and obnoxious Dr. Frank Harte, a walking medical malpractice case finding far too much joy in the gallows of his job. Dylan Moran gets to bring the petulance to a banker and utter wanker Michael Fitzgerald. He’s the kind of guy that literally has enough money to piss away. Isaach De Bankolé’s Simon will play chess with you and go home and bed your wife without batting an eyelid. It’s an ominous but erudite performance from the usually fearsome performer.

The tapestry of the worst aspects of humanity is complimented by the unerring faith of Father James. Gleeson under the direction of McDonagh ascends to another level in this performance. Apart from his undeniable affable quality, there’s an implicit integrity that he’s able to exude so that regardless of his brutal candour, he’s an overwhelmingly good person. He’s an ultimately hopeful man faced with sinful acts, and disrespect abounds. And yet his towering presence is virtuous.

Calvary will shake you up; it’s as audacious as it is beautiful.


Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.

Get tickets here.

Directed by: John Michael McDonagh

Written by: John Michael McDonagh

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran, Aidan Gillen, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josée Croze, Domhnall Gleeson

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