Calvary Movie Review

Featuring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thursday, July 3

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A masterfully written and performed powerhouse of a film that operates brilliantly on multiple levels.

Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a priest in a small coastal town in Ireland who conducts himself with integrity. He is confronted with his mortality when an unseen parishioner with grievances against the Church issues him with a death threat during Confession precisely because he has done nothing wrong. Given seven days before his date with destiny at a time and place appointed by the would-be killer, Father James carries on attempting to minister to the needs of the mostly cynical and scornful locals, some of whom are suspects. His daughter Fiona’s (Kelly Reilly) arrival from the UK after a suicide attempt adds unresolved personal issues to the tumultuous moral, ethical and spiritual dilemmas he must grapple with as the days to his personal Calvary count down.

This is the second dynamite teaming of director John Michael McDonagh and actor par excellence Brendan Gleeson, the first being the terrific dark comedy, The Guard (2011). Calvary is more than a step beyond its very worthy predecessor, a masterfully written and performed powerhouse of a film that operates brilliantly on multiple levels – as a narrative, a personal quest for self-knowledge and fulfillment, a transposing of the Crucifixion to a contemporary and very mortal stage, a meditation on life…

The opening Confessional scene sets up a dramatic tension that shrills like a drawn bow, putting Father James on course for a final reckoning with his would-be killer, and ultimately, himself.

Like the Christ he represents, he has a choice as to whether to keep his date with destiny. Should he flee the town, rather than turn up at the prospective scene of his own murder at the appointed time? Should he alert the police to those he suspects of threatening him? Should he arm himself?
And what of his recently suicidal daughter, fragile and in need of his emotional and paternal support? Should he put her needs first, in which case self-preservation must surely be his priority? And what of the unresolved issues between them? Is there time to work through these if he is to keep his appointment with his self-proclaimed executioner?

The parallels with the Crucifixion are obvious but not laboured. While Father James is often full of wisdom, not deriving from the Good Book so much as his astute and sympathetic study of human nature, Brendan Gleeson and writer/director John Michael McDonagh steer the character well clear of saintliness, infusing the good priest (an exotic and unlikely creature in today’s dramas) with an undeniable humanity that is compellingly believable, and with which the viewer can readily identify. His responses to the widespread ridicule and spite that is levelled at him by the bitterly cynical local community, for instance, are sometimes very flawed, and the effect is to cast him as a person first, and a man of the cloth second.

While Gleeson’s performance is extraordinary, all the characters are well-integrated and ring true, even the minor ones. Put an expertly managed script before good actors, and magic like this sometimes happens. When it does, it’s a joy.

Not that there’s much joy inherent in the subject matter here. Calvary is serious-minded, and for those who care about labels, more tragedy than comedy, although there are plenty of instances of wry humour on the way through to a shattering climax. A profoundly poignant post script that offers a glimmer of hope will stay with you for days.

For mine, this is the pick o the crop so far in what is shaping as a very good year for cinema. Don’t miss.

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One thought on “Calvary Movie Review”

  1. Don’t miss indeed. I’ve rarely seen a more compelling opening scene.

    This is great cinema with few missteps: only the overplayed pissing-on-the-masterpiece scene, and a brief bit of jarring camerawork.

    I read a very dismissive review in The Monthly and was mystified. I thought this was a very different take on the “issue” – not just banging on about child abuse within the Catholic Church, but asking how an intelligent believer (!!! – but I use that term, surprisingly, in good faith) might respond in the context of their belief in Christ’s redemption. And all in the contemporary milieu of Ireland, post-crash.

    The landscape – the objective correlative of Calvary (the hill, not the film) in the (apparently) volcanic plug tor (or whatever it was) – combined with the music score rooted the whole thing in geological time. Gravitas to the max. Brilliant.

    Great review, rolanstein. I hope your readers take note and get along to see the film.

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