Calvary is the new drama from John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh of In Bruges fame, making them the most successful Irish siblings since Jedward.
Brendan Gleeson plays a Catholic priest, struggling with the strange folk of his remote Irish community – like a particularly pensive episode of Father Ted. And as in the classic sitcom, as well as McDonagh’s previous film The Guard, the rhythm and idiosyncrasies of the Irish dialect is beautifully mined for comedy, giving the film a dark vein of humour typical of the brothers’ work.
But Calvary is a serious film, which approaches weighty themes with wit and humanity. An intelligent critique of the Catholic church, the film finds fault in institutions, not individuals. Between this and Philomena, it’s heartening to see cinema finally tackling the institutionalised abuse of children that the Catholic church have sought to hide for decades. Calvary takes on the sensitive issue with bravery, honesty and compassion, through McDonagh’s erudite script and interesting characters.
Gleeson is magnificent, carrying the weight of the world in his bearded face, captured brilliantly in the film’s impressively long opening shot inside a confessional. A secondary school teacher until the age of 36, he has relatively recently emerged as one of the finest actors around, with a remarkably powerful screen presence.
He’s superbly supported by every other Irish actor ever, resulting in a cast that ranges from Brendan Gleeson to Domhnall Gleeson. Chris O’Dowd and Dylan Moran are on intensely strong dramatic form, while Killian Scott looks suspiciously similar to Fez from That ’70s Show.
With careful lighting and striking photography of the rolling Irish hills and grey Irish seas, Calvary is a captivating drama that further marks out both McDonagh and Gleeson – and the combination of the two – as important cinematic forces. Refreshingly downbeat yet eminently watchable, it’s a poetic meditation on faith, abuse and death.