I was instantly interested in seeing John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” the moment I saw the trailer some months ago. This was despite having viscerally disliked the writer/director’s previous collaboration with Brendan Gleeson “The Guard”. I remember watching “The Guard” and being genuinely disturbed by how much acclaim it got. For me it was a tone-deaf mess, not sure of what it was supposed to be and shot through with a streak of nastiness wherein (like McDonagh’s brother Martin’s “In Bruges”) much of the comedic value seems to rest on having gombeenish cartoon Irish men say bigoted offensive slurs. But despite this, “Calvary” seemed to offer something; a compelling story (a priest is threatened with murder and has one week to put his house in order), beautifully shot, with a powerful Brendan Gleeson performance at its centre.
Having now seen the film, I can report that it retains all of those things (trailers can be deceptive) but despite these, the film is an unholy (pun intended) mess. Like “In Bruges” it is tone-deaf, shifting from solemness one moment to slap stick panto acting the next. Gleeson appears to be occupying a different universe than everyone else, like a character from one film has stumbled into a sketch show, or like Bob Hoskin’s grizzled detective wandering into cartoon land in “Who Frames Roger Rabbit?”. Black comedy can be a beautiful thing, but must be handled deftly. Here there is no subtly and it comes apart at the seems.
It is also as subtle as a brick. Clearly a film about a priest in modern Ireland is going to carry a message, and there is something needed to be discussed, but “Calvary” wants to say too much. Almost every scene features a caricature of modern Ireland, many played by skilled actors who have turned their performances to 11, some 20. In Father James Lavelle’s final week he does a greatest hits tour of troubled souls, ticking off many boxes as he goes, including a serial killer, secluded novelist, Celtic Tiger hyper capitalist, and a village idiot type that appears to have been created in a costume shop. One character even remarks about how themselves are cliché, but a knowing self referential wink at the camera does not forgive such laziness. At it’s core it does have something to say about forgiveness, but this is almost drowned in everything else. Only Gleeson’s masterful performance and the films stunning cinematography keep the film in any way ticking along.
I remarked to someone who liked the movie that the characters did not feel real and they retorted that it wasn’t supposed to be reality. That may be so, and I love movies that distort, extend and play with reality. The films of Wes Anderson, for instance, occur in a parallel universe, with people portrayed in an exaggerated way, but they still are relatable. “Calvary” exaggerates, but does it in the most ham fisted way. These characters seem so unreal to the point where I cannot recognise them, or worse still, I cannot sympathise with them. Only Gleeson’s Father James, his daughter Fiona (played by Kelly Reilly ) and David McSavage’s Bishop Montgomery really worked for me.
It has moments of fleeting beauty, mainly between Father James and Fiona, and of the stunning Sligo landscape, and some genuinely funny moments but they are few and fair between in this over cooked movie, which culminates in a montage sequence so prescriptive that it could have come out of an episode of Hollyoaks.