John Michael McDonagh, a British writer-director of Irish descent, and Irish actor Brendan Gleeson first collaborated on the internationally popular “The Guard.” While 2011’s “The Guard” is a light, culture-clash comedy, the new McDonagh-Gleeson project, “Calvary,” is a bleakly amusing, heavy tale.
In “Calvary,” Gleeson plays Father James, a well-meaning priest whose unselfish attempts to serve his ornery flock turn quixotic. His parishioners are a most disagreeable lot.
The local priest is not loved in this story set in the wake of years of revelations about sexual abuse in the Catholic church. Nonetheless, there stays Father James — a good man, a good priest — amidst the ill-tempered sinners who inhabit his parish on Ireland’s west coast. His willingness to sacrifice himself does indeed parallel Christ’s suffering.
“Calvary” opens with a bombshell. In the darkened anonymity of the confessional, a man threatens Father James. The angry fellow doesn’t blame Father James specifically for troubles. He’s simply decided to punish an innocent priest for the sins of others. He tells Father James where and when the deed shall be done.
“Calvary” doesn’t much exploit the mystery that launches the film. Father James does report the threat to his superior but, perhaps echoing the church’s non-response to complaints about sexual abuse in decades past, the bishop is no help whatsoever.
The priest ultimately bears his cross alone. He goes about his normal routine, including his unrewarded outreach to parishioners who spurn him. It’s a resonantly deep performance by Gleeson, a great character actor who can, if the cassock fits, shift to leading man and carry the film.
Along his tortured way, Gleeson’s priest shares scenes with wealthy, drunken, would-be church benefactor Michael Fitzgerald (played by Irish comedian Dylan Moran); an elderly American writer who is, for a change, a friend to the priest (M. Emmet Walsh); and an African immigrant who taunts him (Isaach De Bankolé).
Despite the sardonic shadows that dominate the story, the film contains instances of warmth, especially during Gleeson’s scenes with Kelly Reilly. A British actress of Irish descent, Reilly plays Father James’ troubled adult daughter, a product of his pre-priesthood marriage. These intimate moments shared by father and daughter glow. They form an oasis of love in the storm of negativity.
Scenes shared by Father James and another female character, Teresa, hold similar intimacy. After Teresa, a French tourist played by Marie-Josée Croze (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), is struck by a sudden tragedy, she and Father James share fleeting but deep communion. Gleeson’s work with Croze and Reilly are the movie’s loving soul.
McDonagh, a maverick director who disdains conventional storytelling, follows his very accessible “The Guard” with a take no prisoners project. He won’t let his characters, or his audience, off the hook. Admirable work, yes, but also a painful walk in the darkness.