Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary
"Although displaying much of the barbed wit of his first film, this is a more measured and moving work." | Photo: Jonathan Hession

John Michael McDonagh follows up his blackly comic feature debut The Guard with a film that reaches even further into the heart of smalltown Irish darkness. Although displaying much of the barbed wit of his first film, this is a more measured and moving work and forms the second part of an intended trilogy.

As with his first film, Brendan Gleeson is the heart and soul of the piece, this time playing that rarest of all things in cinema - a good and honest priest. A late arrival to his higher calling, following the death of his wife, Father James has a robust approach to his motly mob of parishioners and duties. James may be the epitome of virtue but he is surrounded by the ghosts of sins past, present and those yet to come. Past wrongdoing, in particular, is a central theme, arriving on the wings of a whispered threat in the confessional, where a parishioner tells him that he intends to kill him - in a week - not for his own sins but for those of the priest who abused the confessor as a child. "I'm going to kill you because you're innocent," he says.

The spectre of the economic crisis also looms large, even in this backwater, epitomised by Dylan Moran's nouveau riche landowner, whose money has bought him nothing but bitterness. Meanwhile innocence, more generally, is in very short supply. In fact, many of the Ten Commandment sins, from covetousness to adultery are present and correct. Even James has a few internal demons - alcoholism and a fragile daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who is recovering from an attempted suicide.

What follows is the priest's progress, as Fr James tries to help his flock - and by extension, his would-be attacker - over the course of the next seven days, with the strong supporting cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Isaach De Bankolé each carving out memorable characters despite limited screentime.

The film is heavily scripted, a move celebrated by McDonagh, who frequently emphasises this with self-reflexive references from his characters to the likes of "third act revelation" or a certain roles being "not a good part to play". Yet despite this accentuation of words, his film always feels firmly anchored to the realities of modern Ireland - beautifully framed and shot by Larry Smith - whether it is in the symmetrical but austere interiors of the church or the wilder environs of the rural landscape.

Also, for all its bleak observations about the human condition, there is room for consideration of the flipside. One of McDonagh's characters points out that society focuses too much on sins and not enough on virtue - and the triumvirate of faith, hope and charity make their presence felt, particularly in touching scenes involving Gleeson and a newly bereaved woman (Marie-Josee Croze). The shadows of sins may loom large - most particularly those committed by members of the cloth - but even in McDonagh's darkest moments of despair, there remains the unmistakable glint of hope.

Reviewed on: 06 Feb 2014
Share this with others on...
A priest finds himself under threat.
Amazon link

Read more Calvary reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray *****

Director: John Michael McDonagh

Writer: John Michael McDonagh

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, M Emmet Walsh, Isaach De Bankolé, Marie-Josee Croze, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot

Year: 2014

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Ireland, UK

Search database:

If you like this, try:

The Guard