Calvary

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Director: John Michael McDonagh.
Screenplay: John Michael McDonagh.
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankole, M. Emmet Walsh, David Wilmot, Marie-Josee Croze, Domhnall Gleeson, Orla O’Rourke, Pat Shortt, Gary Lydon, Killian Scott, Owen Sharpe.

“That’s great cocaine. Very moreish.”

The first collaboration between director John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson was 2011’s hugely original and hilarious Irish film “The Guard” which delivered one of Gleeson’s most memorable roles and showed that McDonagh shared a similar offbeat approach to his brother Martin’s “In Bruges“. Martin went on to make a misjudged step to the U.S. with “Seven Psychopaths“, meanwhile John wisely decided to remain in Ireland and produce the best film of them all.

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While hearing confession, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) learns that a member of his church was abused by another priest from the time he was 7 years old. Now that that priest has died, the unknown confessor intends on retribution by killing Father James in a week’s time. Uncovering the person proves to be a difficult task, though, as there are a number of locals who all have their own reasons to hate the Catholic Church.

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Calvary: 1. (Art Terms) a representation of Christ’s crucifixion, usually sculptured and in the open air
2. (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) any experience involving great suffering.

The definition of “Calvary” is only the starting point on how perfectly McDonagh handles his affairs. The title itself is perfectly suited to the films themes as our protagonist, Father James is to be subjected to his own form of crucifixion. He’s to atone, not for his own sins, but for those of another simply because killing a good priest will make more of a statement than killing a bad one. And so begins the story of a man forced to confront his own mortality.

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As much as this seems like a foreboding and sombre journey (which it is to an extent) it’s also a poetic and satirical one. It’s, at once, a commentary on faith and compassion while managing a blackly comic absurdity in the vein of the Irish, parochial comedy series, Father Ted. It also teases us with a whodunit style murder mystery where each of the colourful cast of characters are hinted at being Father James’ possible killer. The skill in this, is that what we hear at the beginning of the film is still only a threat yet we suspect each of the parishioners as if the murder has already happened – trying to decipher who the culprit is as the priest finds himself in a Manichaean conflict between good and evil.

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It’s the finely tuned balance of downbeat existential drama and off-the-wall gallows humour that’s most impressive about McDonagh’s second feature. The writing is sharp and well judged as are a whole host of supporting characters; from the suffering Kelly Reilly, the jovial Chris O’Dowd to the mephistophelian Aidan Gillen and the salacious Dylan Moran. There’s even a rare appearance from the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh and a hilarious, scene stealing turn from the unknown Owen Sharpe, as a fast-talking rentboy. Anchoring it all, though, is a toweringly solid performance from the always reliable Gleeson. As a late starter to acting (aged 34), Gleeson has delivered some outstanding work but this is arguably his best work yet, and that’s saying something. He’s a soulful, avuncular character that possesses a quiet power and tolerance of the wayward, rural community mentality. Such a mentality is reflected in the environment and Larry Smith’s sublime cinematography captures it in all it’s stark beauty with a wonderfully fitting music score to compliment the images. Quite simply, no-one puts a foot wrong.

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Said to be the second part of a planned “suicide trilogy” between McDonagh and Gleeson and if the third instalment is even half as good as this then we are in for yet another treat. Calvary has certainly received it’s fair share of plaudits and might yet feature in many “best of” lists at the end of the year. There’s no doubt that it’ll make mine. An absolutely solid and thought provoking piece of filmmaking.

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Mark Walker

Trivia: Before becoming an actor, Brendan Gleeson was a teacher for 10 years at Belcamp College Secondary School in Dublin where he taught English, Irish & Physical Education.

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39 Responses to “Calvary”

  1. Mark, really glad you liked this one. It’s a splendid review of a splendid film. You note all the hues and details that make director McDonagh shine and Gleeson–always been a solid actor and I’m thrilled he had a leading role and delivered superbly. I hope he gets more starring roles. Three cheers for a well made film!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Cindy! I loved it! Thought it was marvellously done. Some have complained about the comedy and the drama being uneven but I didnt think so. I thought thw balance was just right and Gleeson was magnificent. Quite possibly the best I’ve seen from him. Ive been impressed with the quality of films we’ve had this year and I’ve still to catch up with some but, so far, this is my favourite.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmmm – think I’d like this one, Muckers?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Easily, one of my favorites of the year, and most haunting. Great review, Mark.

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  4. Wow, thanks for providing those definitions – definitely makes me think of the film in a different light!

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    • I think so too. I think the definitions do help to put things in perspective a little. Calvary was also the place were Christ was crucified but the art and literally definitions work more the film itself. Cheers, man!

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  5. Really glad you like this one! I personally love this one with its strong black comedy and strong whodunit without trying to be big. I admire Brendan Gleeson here… he has outdone himself! I have it as one of the best in 2014, tho.
    Cheers,

    P

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  6. Great review my friend. Can’t say I was familiar with that one. Sounds like it’s definitely worth checking on.

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  7. Nice review, Mark. Personally, this one didn’t do too much for me, but I sorta figured there was probably more here that just wasn’t quite registering with me. It’s nice to hear that you took a lot more from it, though. 🙂

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    • I took plenty from this one, Chris. It really worked for me on all levels. From the acting, the drama and the black comedy, it all just clicked. Definitely one of the years highlights in my eyes.

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  8. I knew you’d like this mate! Fine fine work; couldn’t have said it any better myself. Gleeson is something else.

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  9. I really like Brendan Gleeson! He never fails in impressing me in anything and sounds like this is one of his best performances yet. Tough subject matter no doubt, but I’m going to rent it on account of him. Great review Mark!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Im also a bug Gleeson fan, Ruth. I can’t honestly say he’s ever been as good as he is here. Great little film that’s a serious contender for finishing the year as my favourite film.

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  10. Awesome mate, so glad you liked this. So darkly funny but also really touching at times too (no pun intended). Gleeson is just awesome.

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    • Haha! Risque, but no pun taken! Great little flick and definitely one of the best I’ve seen this year. How good was Gleeson, though? Outstanding work from him and i really enjoyed all the supporting characters too. A real treat!

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  11. I read this the other day and thought I’d commented but obviously not! I’ve returned to your review as I actually watched Calvary last night – really enjoyed it, and I can see why you would pick it as your favourite so far this year. I thought Gleeson was fantastic too and the ending was really powerful. Considering the main themes there’s a surprising amount of humour in there – there were one or two scenes that reminded me of Father Ted, especially with the setting.

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    • Nice one Stu. Glad to hear you liked it. I absolutely adore this movie. Such a little treat, Gleeson has rarely been better and the whole cast of oddballs brought something to it. As it stands, I’m between this and Nymphomaniac as my favourite. It was this but I completely forgot that Nympho was released this year. I seen it so early.

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      • Nymphomaniac is up there for me too. I don’t think I’d have bothered watching it this year (if at all) but your review convinced me to give it a go and I’m glad I did. Tough watch at times but I sat through both parts in the middle of blockbuster silly season / school holidays and enjoyed the change. Old Shia’s accent though…the missus and I were in stitches.

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      • Haha! Yeah, what was that accent? A South african/cockney deal? Pretty cringe worthy. Apart from that, though, i enjoyed it immensely. A real work of art!

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      • Terrible – in one sentence I swear he manages to incorporate accents from four different continents. If you actually tried to do that you’d never make it!

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      • Haha! Let me guess the other two… Australia and America? 😉

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      • Yeah! Ive tried to replicate it but it’s impossible! Haha

        Liked by 1 person

      • Haha! You’re better just sticking a paper bag over yer head! That seems to work wonders for him! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Ah, you have finally convinced me to get to this. I have been wondering about it, and it has come back with some solid reviews, but it looked a bit meh at times. You have sold it. I will check it out sometime soon! Great work, obviously 😛

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    • I emplore you to check it, Zoe. It didn’t work for some but that mainly seemed to be an american audience. Those elsewhere seemed to appreciate the humour more. Definitely one of the films of the year for me.

      Liked by 1 person

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