July 31st 2014 02:30
The sins of the father are visited upon by all in a small Irish township in John Michael McDonagh’s long awaited second feature, his follow-up to The Guard (2011). Again featuring Brendon Gleeson in the lead, Calvary (2014) begins in a confessional where a parishioner confides of the horrors of abuse suffered at the hands of a priest in his youth. In confiding with Father James Lavelle (Gleeson), the confessor decides upon a retribution that will mindlessly enact an eye for an eye, but rather strip an impotent God of one of his most valuable commodities, a ‘good’ priest who likewise doesn’t deserve his fate. Lavelle is given a week to put his affairs in order before judgement day arrives.
With streaks of dry, bleak humour, McDonagh constructs a week in the life of Lavelle as he contemplates his place in God’s scheme and tends to the random woundings of his flock. Amongst them are an abused wife (Orla O’Rourke), an aging American writer (M. Emmet Walsh), an apathetic wealthy businessman (Dylan Moran) and his own daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), whose recent suicide attempt accentuates how close to home the troubles of the individual are to Lavelle. Though there are obvious missteps in McDonagh’s carefully constructed screenplay - chief amongst them a couple of extraneous marginal characters whose flickering appearances disrupt both the credibility and flow of the narrative - for the most part the director has done a wonderful job in presenting a sombre, humanising portrait of Lavelle. The central moral predicaments that speak of reprisals for the sins of a father are carried out to devastating effect as Lavelle weighs up the equally uncomfortable prospects of flight or confrontation. The director also leaves space to allude to Ireland’s broader decline without any overt, spell-breaking didacticism attached.
At its centre of this blackly qualified drama is the figure of Gleeson who provides a towering performance, perhaps his finest one to date. Lavelle is deeply empathetic yet hardly free of shortcomings and the echoes of his own erroneous past make waves he can’t sideswipe away. His own ‘sins’, including that of becoming a priest which may have registered as neglect to an already isolated child, are treated without the predictability of an imminent easy resolution. The true measure of McDonagh’s work is in small, gentle, genuinely moving moments that abound; it’s these that powerfully accentuate Calvary’s emotional core, revealing in turn an Ireland staunch in its refusal to topple even as it’s hamstrung by economic woe and moral torpor.