film review: Calvary (2014)April 11, 2014 // 1 Comment
“There’s no point in killing a bad priest… but killing a good one? That’d be a shock.”
So opens Calvary, the latest from John Michael McDonagh, director of hugely popular Irish black comedy, The Guard. It’s an interesting line and one I pondered on briefly. Briefly because it’s one of many lines like it, provocative, challenging… designed to make you stop and think…
… And in many ways I’m still in two minds as to whether this was a good thing or not. Hopefully I’ll decide by the end of the review.
Comparisons with The Guard are inevitable so let’s get them out of the way. It’s nothing like The Guard.
Well, it’s quite like The Guard… because Brendan Gleeson stars and John Michael McDonagh directs. And they’re similar in that Gleeson is playing – essentially – the same moral character. One who’s staunchly moral yet morally ambiguous when compared to society’s expectations. Also, we’re still in small town Ireland, and we’re still looking at a central figure in society, the guard, the priest. You could even still argue that this is a black comedy, though it’s a lot darker than The Guard ever pretended.
Yet. Calvary is a very different beast. The Guard was a fun film. Calvary is trying to be more than entertaining. It’s trying to be a big, an important film. In my opinion anyway.
In many ways it’s successful. As I alluded to earlier, it’s an interesting script; it’s full of quotes, big ideas… so many of them though that it’s almost too much. I’ve decided it’s only almost too much. Not too much. I’ve decided I relished the way the film tried to challenge our preconceptions of small town Ireland, of morality, of blame and of guilt.
Where it’s less successful is in bringing our preconceptions to the screen. Every one of them has a totem in this film. Which is… fun. To a certain degree. But after a while the concept wears a little thin. Everyone we meet is a “CHARACTER” and we meet a lot of them. Now of course, you do meet “characters” in small town Ireland but here they’re all just a bit broad. Some too are more successful in their purpose than others. You could lift a few of them out and viewers would be none the wiser, and it’d be a tighter film for it.
All this serves to make Calvary feel a bit calculated. Which is ironic because if it was, you’d expect it to be more… polemic. More focused in direction. I’m not sure it knows what it wants to say. Or perhaps it does, it just isn’t sure exactly how to say it. It points the finger everywhere and ultimately leads you nowhere.
I feel like I’m nitpicking though, because it is so close to greatness. Brendan Gleeson is simply fantastic in this. It’s really is a powerhouse performance. He’s created one of those situations where you couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. This core performance is really why the film deserves an audience. Come for Gleeson, stay for the intriguing commentary.
Oh, did I mention it’s stunningly beautiful as well? Well it is. I had the opportunity to visit Easkey in Sligo where it was filmed, a few weeks before I saw it, and decided to skip. Boy do I regret that now. If you get the chance to go to Easkey, go.
Calvary certainly not the follow up film I expected from McDonagh. It’s a curious beast. It may not be flawless but found it utterly compelling viewing. I guess I did like it then. I don’t know if you, you the reader, will like it but I urge everyone to go see it. Make up your own mind.