From the opening scene it is clear John Michael Mc Donagh is aiming for a weightier tone than the lighter one successfully employed in his previous box office smash The Guard. An older looking and bearded Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, a priest who at the beginning is sitting in the confession box. Off-screen we hear someone enter and start talking. There follows a quite astonishingly worded first line by the off screen character (mentioned in surprised awe by the Father James after it is spoken. Indeed there is some reflexive play on writing and characterisation littered throughout Calvary). The camera stays on Gleeson’s wonderful face throughout. The set up for the film is established in this scene: Father James has a week to get his house in order before he is murdered. This sets in motion a week where Father James meets up with all his regular parishioners (played by an assortment of famous Irish faces) and starts to think about how he has spent his years as a priest. There is also the small matter of family issues to deal with.
The film is sectioned into days of the week which propels it forward nicely towards the inevitable showdown. It is clear that Father James is heavily involved in the lives of his parishioners. And what a group they are: there is Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) the town butcher having marital difficulties. He believes his wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) is having an affair with Simon (Isaach De Bankolé). There is the rich banker Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) with difficulties money can’t buy. There is also Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) the most cynical of doctors. We also have Milo (Killian Scott) who is lonely desperately so and local barman Brendan (Pat Shortt) who watches and sees everything. It should also be mentioned that legendary character actor M. Emmet Walsh turns up as a reclusive American writer. Add to all this Father James has to deal with Bishop Montgomery (David Mc Savage) and inept priest Father Timothy Leary (David Wilmot). There are a lot of troubles ahead.
There is a touch of an Agatha Christie whodunit about the set up here. Each character could conceivably hold a grudge if not against the priest certainly against the Catholic Church. This seems to be Mc Donagh’s theme here. Does a good man have to keep apologising for the wrongs of an organisation? And more importantly should he die for that organisation? Not for nothing is this film called Calvary. There is a lot to like about this film. As mentioned Gleeson is always a pleasure on screen and it is great to see him in a leading role. But for me the problems far outweigh the good qualities on show. Whilst the acting from the cast is pretty good very few of them can get under the skin of the characters they are playing (Chris O’Dowd is a notable exception). This is mainly due to a quite frankly poor screenplay. Some of the dialogue is fine and occasionally inspired. But the main problem with the screenplay is the same that plagued The Guard, namely the characters speaking the same cod philosophy and phraseology. Here it is expanded out to a much larger cast. The effect of this is exhausting meaning we never really get to know any of the characters (there a lot of speaking roles, more than even mentioned in the last paragraph, far too many really). This is all fine if you place the film within a heightened universe, so the dialogue can be played up theatrically say. But this so grounded in the admittedly beautiful Sligo soil that the words sound ridiculous and staged when they should sound heartfelt and realistic.
Calvary will no doubt have its fans. Indeed it would be nice to see an Irish Film Board funded film do well at the box office. But there is a sense here that Mc Donagh has not really moved on from The Guard. And with the success of that film maybe he does not need to. But for me this is a film that despite some good moments, a great cast and some gorgeous cinematography just does not work. By the time the final act happens (which aims for and fails to achieve a kind of operatic grandeur) you just do not really care. A missed opportunity.