Netflix UK film review: Calvary
Ivan Radford | On 22, Aug 2014
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran
Watch Calvary online in the UK: Netflix uK / TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
“Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.”
That’s an unknown congregation member to Father James one day in the confession box. Told he has one week to get his house in order, the priest finds himself facing death – for the price of other people’s sins.
Why? Because the killer was abused by a priest as a child. The culprit in question might be dead now, but bumping off a man of the cloth, they argue, is fair justice. Killing a bad priest, after all, means nothing. But killing a good priest? That stays with you.
Father James is certainly a good priest. Or, at least, he tries to be. A widower with a taste for the booze, he’s as redeemed as anyone gets in his God-forsaken Irish village. Brendan Gleeson towers over the community, a colossus of beard and disappointment. And director John Michael McDonagh knows it: he opens with the confessional confrontation, an exchange which takes place while we stare closely at Gleeson. It’s all there even without him saying a word; the fear, the anger, the noble strain of sacrifice. If In Bruges and The Guard established beyond a doubt that Brendan is one of the best actors around, Calvary confirms it with a resounding amen.
The camera’s repeated close-ups of Father James’ face means that we don’t see his potential killer. While others might turn that mystery into a noir-tinged thriller, McDonagh has deeper things on his mind: this is less a whodunnit and more a why-dunit. Our parade of suspects is as grim as it is entertaining, from Chris O’Dowd’s violent, swaggering butcher to Dylan Moran’s despicably drunk rich man, who’s as happy peeing on his art collection as he is looking at it. “I don’t have to know what it means,” he declares of one painting on the wall. “I own it.”
In a country where the church owns acres and acres land, that lack of understanding has never been more evident; the villagers are as hostile as they are holy, one minute asking for forgiveness from the Father, the next burning down the Lord’s house, where so many young have been abused. McDonagh’s script mercilessly hops between comedy and cold drama, a bleakly hilarious tone echoed by the desolate landscape populated by the witty cast. “That’s one of those lines that sound witty but doesn’t actually make any sense,” Gleeson snaps after a particularly barbed retort. All the while, the mountain of Benbulbin looms in the background, a giant grey slab of a tomb.
Faintly recalling the stations of the cross as our saviour-like figure walks slowly to his death, the religious parallels could well be laboured, but McDonagh is as light as he is philosophical. He occasionally shoots Brendan with a dutch tilt, making the tall giant seem smaller, more vulnerable than those tormenting him. All the while, the director raises questions about faith, church and modern society without hitting you over the head with a semen.
“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved,” the film reminds us at the start, before adding: “Do no presume; one of them was doomed.” As Gleeson’s out-of-touch priest tries to reconcile himself with his daughter and his failings with the fallen world around him, that haze of despair and hope is stirred up beautifully by the director, filling the atmosphere of the inevitable finale like dust from an old hymnbook. The closing shot, though, hints that maybe reconciliation is possible after all.
Whether you’re a believer a not, Calvary’s punch lies there, in the powerful, moving story of a decent man coming to terms with his own mortality. Killing a bad priest? That’s nothing. Killing a good priest? That really does stay with you.
Calvary is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.