Review – Calvary

Poster for 2014 Irish drama Calvary

Genre: Drama
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 11th April 2014
Runtime: 101 minutes
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Kelly Reilly, Killian Scott, David Wilmot, Domhnall Gleeson
Synopsis: During confession, a priest is told that he will be murdered in a week’s time as punishment for the abuse his fellow priests have inflicted.



The McDonagh brothers – Martin and John Michael – have already made a big impact on cinema. Martin made his debut with the incredible In Bruges and John Michael hit hard with buddy cop movie The Guard. But whilst Martin faltered with the middling Seven Psychopaths in 2012, John Michael McDonagh has hit gold again with the masterful drama Calvary.

Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is threatened during confession by a man who was abused by a priest as a child. He vows to murder James, after giving him a week to get his affairs in order. For the next week, James goes about his duties, meeting odd locals (Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran) and trying to reconcile with his visiting daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly).

At the heart of Calvary is a pitch-perfect performance from Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson is one of the best character actors working today and has never been better than in this subtle, layered performance.

The dark sarcasm of his role in The Guard is present, but there’s also a weariness to him – a man who has the rest of the world’s problems on his shoulders alongside his own. He isn’t the stereotypical good man with a fatal flaw; he’s a real human being.

| "I think she’s bipolar. Or lactose intolerant, one of the two."

But the other star of Calvary is writer-director John Michael McDonagh. His script is, as we’ve come to expect from the McDonagh brothers, whip-smart and fizzing with quotable one-liners. It also has a warmth, sophistication and maturity that is the mark of a filmmaker really coming of age.

This sophistication is most evident in Calvary’s gripping, powerful conclusion. Whilst the film plays out broadly as a whodunnit of sorts, the final reveal of the culprit also provides another revelation – it never really mattered.

Whichever of the frankly horrible locals was at the other side of the confession booth, there was only one important man on that beach. This rids the film of the third act anti-climax that mars pretty much every thriller of recent years. In its place is a brutal sucker punch of a finale that hits harder with its stunning minimalism than the blood-soaked finishes of either The Guard or In Bruges.

Calvary also benefits from a fantastic supporting cast. The casting of talented comic actors like Dylan Moran and Chris O’Dowd is an absolute master-stroke. The comic lifting is easy for them, but they are surprisingly capable at marshalling the layered and complex conflicts within their characters. O’Dowd, in particular, proves an excellent dramatic presence.

However minor their appearances, every supporting member makes their own impact on the story, which gives the film a real sense of depth.

| "Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one."

Also worthy of praise is Domhnall Gleeson, son of star Brendan, who puts in a brief, but memorable turn as an enigmatic serial killer visited by Father James as part of his parish duties.

But there’s little doubt that Gleeson is the anchor that keeps Calvary from drifting into pretention or false grandeur. Whenever the film is in his hands, he elevates it to a near-masterpiece. Whilst the shots of rolling Irish hills are jaw-droppingly beautiful, it’s in Gleeson’s grizzled mug that the beauty of Calvary lies.


Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Noticeably more mature than his previous film, John Michael McDonagh may have just made his first five-star corker with Calvary.

Brendan Gleeson is note perfect in the lead role, aided by surprising and impressive supporting turns from some great comic talent and a script that’s as well-crafted as any so far this year.

Like Father Ted mixed with Broadchurch, it’s a film of striking beauty and incredible power.


Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

One thought on “Review – Calvary

  • 01/07/2014 at 01:26

    I found this post via your identification of “Calvary” in your “Top Films of 2014” post.

    As a Catholic priest, but also as more a fan of Martin McDonagh than his brother John Michael, I found “Calvary” more touching than I anticipated. I suppose I find the title to be key: Just as the earliest Christians attempted to find meaning in the morale-crushing death of Jesus, so also I wonder: Does some act of reconciliation take place in Father James allowing his own life to be taken?

    I suppose the viewer gets some hint of that, in my opinion, by finding James’ daughter staring across from James’ killer and, in my opinion, the reconciling of that killer serves as a sort of microcosm for the reconciliation of the members of James’ community who, as Gleeson has stated, want to expose James as a hypocrite – “if that is what he is” – but secretly hope he is not.

    Thanks for letting me share my thoughts and I am somewhat curious to know what is behind the interpretation of Seven Psychopaths as “faltering”. Perhaps another day?


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