The Watchers

The Watchers

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Review: Calvary (UK Cert 15)

Brendan Gleeson is one of the most versatile character actors working in film at the moment. From Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films and other big budget blockbusters like Mission: Impossible II and Troy, to smaller films like In Bruges and Perrier's Bounty, he can play hero or villain with the same commitment and intensity. His last collaboration with writer-director John Michael McDonagh was The Guard (2011) where he played a crass, drink- and drug-addled police officer. Now, in Calvary, Gleeson plays a County Sligo parish priest facing a terrible situation.

Whilst hearing confession, Father James Lavelle talks to a parishioner about the horrific sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a Catholic priest. The perpetrator is long dead and cannot be brought to justice for his crimes. So, the parishioner gives Lavelle a week to get his affairs in order... and then Lavelle will die. Not because he is corrupt or bad, but because he is decent. He will die for the sins of others. 

This might sound like a wholly bleak and depressing watch and it's not a feel-good  film by any stretch of the imagination, but there's a rather pleasing streak of black humour that lightens things and the whole thing is led from the front by one of Gleeson's finest performances.

Lavelle is a fundamentally good man, a man of staunch faith even in the face of the darkness surrounding him. But he's not a saint or a martyr. There are a few rough edges: he has previously had a drinking problem and he's been a distant father to his daughter (conceived before he joined the priesthood). These aspects of the character are explored subtly- when pushed to the very limit by the killer's actions, Lavelle loses himself in drink- and there's a real chemistry between Gleeson and Kelly Reilly (who plays his daughter Fiona). Their scenes together are touching and well-performed, with years of unsaid things coming to the fore.

Other notable performances come from Aidan Gillen as an athiest doctor, full of snark and sarcasm; Chris O'Dowd is good as the local butcher, who is suspected of knocking his adulterous wife about, but seems very happy that his wife has a distraction, whilst Dylan Moran is on form as a dissolute banker having a crisis of conscience. There's a lovely comic turn by Killian Scott as Milo, a thoroughly strange young man, whilst there's a moving performance by Marie-Josee Croze as a young French woman who Lavelle meets when delivering the last rites to her partner. 

The film is not exactly a whodunit (or, more accurately, a who-will-do-it): in a conversation with his superior, Lavelle states that he knows who it is as he recognised the voice (although this wasn't obvious to me). It's more of a character study as Lavelle negotiates his relationships with his parishioners. There's a curiously stagey and knowing quality to the script which is a little jarring at times (things like Lavelle and his daughter talking about 'third-act revelations' and the doctor stating that he 'gets some of the best lines') and there's an unnecessary diversion where Lavelle goes to visit a prisoner (although inthat scene, you do get to see Gleeson act opposite his son Domhnall). 

The nihilistic viewpoint won't be to everyone's taste and in places it's a hard watch but overall it's a gripping drama with some knockout performances that will stay with you once the film has ended.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5


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