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Calvary: Bleak Irish film will answer cinema fans’ prayers

This article is over 10 years, 2 months old
The acclaimed Calvary looks at a rotten institution in a sad and alienated world—and finds a surprising faith in humanity, writes?Sarah Ensor
Issue 2399
Meaty Drama—Brendan Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd in Calvary
Meaty Drama—Brendan Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd in Calvary

This film is a bleak comedy and  a disturbing tale of damaged people in a society coming apart under the pressure of austerity—and a few others who like having sex and taking drugs.

Like director John Michael McDonagh’s previous film The Guard it stars Brendan Gleeson, this time as the priest Father James Lavelle. 

Lavelle tries to be a solid constant and moral guide to his parishioners, but he is frustrated by their spite and cynicism and often ends up alone.

The twist is that a parishioner, who years before was the victim of a paedophile priest, now plans to kill Father Lavelle on an appointed day.

Lavelle is to die not because he is abusive, but because the death of a “good priest” will have more shock value.

In the week that he’s told he has left he will be become the scapegoat for all the anger and bitter contempt the establishment is held in.

He can discuss the death threat with his bishop in a walled rose garden sheltered from the world but then he has to go back on his own.

He is appalled by the crass ignorance of his fellow priests yet he seems unaware of the true impact of the child abuse scandals or even of the scope of the cuts.


Many of the characters, mostly well acted, constantly goad the priests with their wise-cracking cynicism, sexuality and money. 

The atheist doctor, played by Aidan Gillen, says he spends most of his time killing people. The mechanic, played by Isaach de Bankole goes to mass yet has thinly veiled contempt for the priests.

And there appear to be several candidates for the would-be murderer.

Lavelle himself only became a priest after his wife died and his visiting grown up daughter, played by Kelly Reilly, tried to kill herself more than once. 

Gleeson and Reilly are both fine actors and their relationship is movingly realistic.

They are both vulnerable and Reilly’s character is painfully fragile. But she can still fiercely defend her father in the face of the locals’ scorn.

The cinematography is a feast for the eyes, set in the greenest west of Ireland bordered by the pounding Atlantic Ocean.

But the scenery is little respite from the alienation of characters whose opinions may be corrosive and depressing but are at least well informed.

There’s no justice in the atomised, miserable world McDonagh has created. The only redemption comes with one person managing to ignore another’s bullshit and respond to the pain underneath.

It seems to have uncovered human relationships at the kernel of Catholicism that will keep it alive long after the ideology and institutions have been hollowed out and shamed. 

Calvary is in cinemas now

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