CALVARY (2014) – FILM REVIEW BY PAUL LAIGHT
**Contains clips and spoilers**
There are many, many different kinds of films and filmmakers who come from innumerable backgrounds, places and cultures. They have also had a variety of paths to making films such as: film school, television, scriptwriting, novels, plays, stand-up or sketch comedy, being rich or even working in a video-shop. Certain filmmakers have a distinctive visual and thematic style and if using the historical parlance one may call them auteurs. Such a list may include: Hitchcock, Scorcese, Godard, Coppola, DePalma, Spielberg, Kurosawa, Hawks, Lee, Campion, Cronenberg, Kubrik, Coen Brothers, Lean, Lynch, Almodovar, Allen, McQueen, Ramsay, Polanski, Ray, Chaplin, Wilder, and Michael Bay. That last one is a joke by the way.
These greats would make some of the greatest films of our times – some formalistic and artistic masterpieces others emotional and heartrending character pieces and others comedic. They’ve also made great films which maybe I didn’t enjoy first time round or didn’t understand but later come to love or appreciate. Of course, you’re asking yourself: what has this got to do with John Michael McDonagh’s dramatic film CALVARY (2014) – I’m not sure to be honest. What I would say is that this film has received much critical acclaim according to the posters I saw and I’m sure reviews will be very good, but, on first watch I didn’t enjoy it that much. It’s billed as dark comedic drama but I didn’t find it funny enough or dramatic enough and while it was a great opening the plot wasn’t enough to sustain a feature film.
Calvary – named after a site immediately outside Jerusalem’s walls where Jesus was crucified – opens brilliantly when Father James Lavelle (acting behemoth Brendan Gleeson’s) is taking confession. He is then threatened by an unknown parishioner and informed he is going to be murdered in just over a week’s time. This sets in motion a potentially interesting “whodunnit” plot with which to structure the story and introduce an ever-increasing set of quirky and troubled rural characters. Gleeson’s Priest is not externally bothered by the threat and even admits to his superior he may know who it is. Thus, any suspense is rendered redundant throughout really.
Over the next week with Judgment Day approaching Father Lavelle comes into contact with a brilliant ensemble cast including: Dylan Moran (Black Books), Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones), M. Emmet Walsh (Bladerunner, Blood Simple), Chris O’Dowd (IT Crowd, Crimson and the Petal, Bridesmaids), Domnhall Gleeson (Harry Potter, Judge Dredd), Isaach De Bankole (Casino Royale) and the always memorable Pat Shortt (Garage) etc. Each character could potentially be a suspect but there’s no real narrative urgency as, while very well performed, the ‘suspects’ don’t really do very much dramatically. Don’t get me wrong there are some wonderful one-liners in the script and Aiden Gillen’s cynical Doctor impressed me. But even his character was aware of his own redundancy in the piece during a verbally erudite and metatextual joust with Father Lavelle. Throw into the mix Kelly Reilly – as Lavelle’s suicidal daughter – and you get another character on the edge of a nervous breakdown that you don’t really care about.
I really enjoyed John Michael McDonagh’s first film THE GUARD (2011), also starring Gleeson with Don Cheadle and another motley crew of quirky characters. But that had more heart and humour than Calvary which almost collapses under the weight of its’ own pretensions. Perhaps, because I’m not Catholic or Irish I did not get many of the cultural and religious references. However, I certainly got the themes of guilt, death, revenge, existential detachment and I also understood the severity of the historical crimes perpetrated by Catholic Priests against children and Irish citizens. Indeed, the film quite rightly deals with this sensitively giving a voice to the victims of these heinous crimes. Even the ending — which is superbly staged — left me slightly confused and desiring more of a surprise or narrative reversal.
Ultimately, this was a superbly written and acted piece rather than a fully-fledged satisfactory storytelling experience. The quality of the writer’s ideas, dialogue and themes outweighed the humour, drama and suspense. Good use is made of a terrific cast and beautiful Irish coastal landscapes but overall I felt detached from the characters due to the over-authorial nature of the film. I felt like I was watching a film rather than a proper story and could hear the writer speaking rather than the characters. But, I have been wrong about other great films and filmmakers in the past and have come to appreciate them more on second or third viewings. Calvary could just be one of those films.