Brendan Gleeson is a powerhouse actor, seemingly incapable of a bad performance. He is always a strong presence of authority, wit, conviction, and melancholy, making him perfect for the role of a Catholic priest. The film’s title is fitting. Father James is subjected to his own calvary. The opening scene features one long take of Gleeson’s face. A man (known to James but unknown to the audience) sits opposite him in the confessional and divulges his past as a chronic rape victim at the hands of a Catholic priest. The man tells James that he plans to kill him, on the beach, the following Sunday. “That’ll be a good one,” he says concerning the murder of a “good priest.” Pitch-black comedy sneaks into this exchange (and I mean black) and snakes its way throughout the rest of the film.
However, Calvary remains a deeply human, deeply melancholy experience. With the threat of death looming Father James goes about his regular pastoral duties, checking up on his parish as usual. He is, as numerous characters assert, a good man and a good priest. Above all, however, he is a human being, capable of Sin and failure, and there are several hints to his dark past before joining the priesthood. His daughter Fiona (a beautiful performance from Kelly Reilly) comes to visit after attempting suicide (“You’re supposed to cut down”), a promiscuous woman confesses her adultery before committing it (it seems to turn her on), a male prostitute hides his pain under the guise of wiseguy speed-talk, and various other exchanges drench the film in humanity.
At the center is Brendan Gleeson. Father James. Paying for the Sins of the Catholic church and dealing with the broken human beings in his gorgeous Irish town. The location is perfect, full of mountains and crashing waves, lensed with sombre from cinematographer Larry Smith. He wrestles with everyone, and everyone seemingly wrestles back. Many have good reasons to despise the Catholic church but James stands as the rock, played to perfection by Gleeson.
It’s rare that a film so wry and humorous is so deeply moving and compelling. Brendan Gleeson gives the performance of his career, exuding strength, wit, and perseverance as his Father James is bludgeoned by the wind, the waves, and the townspeople. John Michael McDonagh has written a host of colorful, varied, yet believably human characters. His leading man is his greatest creation, a priest with intelligence, conviction, and struggles. The black comedy is pervasive but the first time I saw the film I didn’t realize just how affected I was by its melancholy and humanity until a final montage of its characters flashed by.