Following the international success of “The Guard,” a crime comedy set in the west of Ireland starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, the last thing writer-director John Michael McDonagh wanted to do was make “The Guard II.”
Although “The Guard” and McDonagh’s new film, “Calvary,” have leading man Gleeson and the Irish west in common, the bleakly comic “Calvary” is the director’s reaction against expectations.
“A lot of people wanted us to make ‘The Guard II,’ ” McDonagh said last week during interviews for “Calvary.” “But that would be such a boring path to take.”
The humor in “The Guard” gives way to the heavy drama of “Calvary,” which opens Friday in New Orleans. In the wake of sex-abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland and the U.S., Gleeson stars as a parish priest whose parishioners do not revere him. Ironically, his Father James is that good priest who is worthy of respect.
Despite Father James’ kindness and sincerity and his dedication to his flock, throughout “Calvary” the poor man is, so to speak, crucified.
“Yeah,” Gleeson said, “he’s being hammered from the very beginning. And probably not without reason, in terms of what he represents. Every character in the film has his own belief system, his own truth. So you get a bunch of people who are slightly grotesque in the extremities of their disillusionment. But they all have a legitimate point of view, up to a point.”
In earlier Irish times, Father James would have occupied a place of honor in the community. But now he’s reviled and abused by the people he strives to serve.
For Dublin-based actor Gleeson — whose dozens of film roles include an assassin in “In Bruges,” Professor Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody in the “Harry Potter” movies and a father struggling to protect his child from rampaging zombies in “28 Days Later” — Father James was a grueling challenge.
“It was probably the most arduous shoot of my career,” he said. “Not in terms of physical activity. Mentally, it was it was the most difficult.”
For his second film with Gleeson, McDonagh, a Londoner whose Irish parents immigrated from western Ireland, took script suggestions from his Irish star.
“I sent Brendan the first draft of the film,” McDonagh said. “Usually, I’d never send an actor a first draft. Brendan’s notes were, ‘Yeah, I want to do the film. I really like it; but I think there should be more emotion.’ ”
Gleeson recommended more development of scenes featuring Father James and Fiona, the adult daughter the priest abandoned years before.
“I agreed with Brendan,” McDonagh said. “And now when I watch the film, those scenes are some of my favorite moments. They almost make you cry. They came from Brendan pushing me.”
“The heartbeat of the film,” Gleeson said, “is in the daughter and her relationship with her father. The scene where the priest rings her and talks about forgiveness, that’s the one that breaks my heart. And it was fantastic to work with a director who is open to those kind of suggestions. It showed a great trust in me.”
Kelly Reilly (“Flight,” “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”), an English actress of Irish descent, co-stars as the tortured Fiona. Gleeson knew she was right for the role the minute she arrived on the set.
“It was just, ‘This is too good to be true,’ ” he said. “And Marie-Josée Croze, who plays the French woman who loses her husband, that scene brings such tenderness. It’s the upside of all the darkness that the priest is going through.”
“Fiona,” Reilly said, “is not coming to meet this man with anger. She’s just asking, ‘Where were you?’ There’s so much love between them, even though their hearts are breaking. The words in the script indicate there is much more going on between Fiona and this man who became a wonderful priest after he forgot to be a father.”