“So, creatively quirky? Religious allegory?
Or just a little dazed and confused from too much alter wine?
Review – text version:
It’s an overused descriptor, “quirky”, and I’ve avoided using it in any review I’ve presented, but here’s a film for which the handle fits.
It’s a whodunit; a who’s gonna do it; a gentle black comedy; a deep character study and a comment on some rather unsavory issues relating to the Catholic Church in Ireland. Oh, and it’s also very scenic… in an accidental travelogue sort of way. Yes, indeed, a mixed confectionery bag just bursting with bitterness and quirkiness. This is Calvary.
Writer Director John Michael McDonagh gained worthy attention for his earlier film, THE GUARD, also starring Brendan Gleeson. In fact Gleeson picked up a Golden Globe nomination for that film and the tidy box office performance ensured their next effort would find the funding.
In contrast to his crusty cop in The Guard, here Gleeson plays a crusty Priest, father James. In his past is a marriage; an adult daughter; then somewhere way past 40 he has heard the calling – clearly some people live much fuller lives than I.
In a quaint village in County Sligo we see father James interact with his parishioners who have not lived particularly full lives, as seems to be traditional with any film set in a small, working class Irish Village.
Blending the liberal doses of gentle character driven humour with lots of swear words, the significantly darker elements of the unfolding plot might very well have ended up resembling a bucket of soggy communion wafers but here it seems to work… well maybe 80% of the time.
The really dark element, the constantly looming threat – and this is in the trailer, so no spoiler – is that someone in the village makes a proclamation that father James will meet his end, by their unidentified hand, very, very soon.
The bits of information missing are “who” and “why”… and that is revealed over the course of the film but while we, the audience, are trying to put those pieces together, we are distracted by quaint scenery, quaint old pubs, a dead dog – not so quaint – and here’s a challenge, see if you can figure the curious incident of who made the dog dead in the night time in this film – and there’s the quaint 1950‘s dress sense of father James who insists on looking like a character from Darby O’Gill and the Little People or Going My Way.
Father James is facing a bundle of dilemmas where duty clashes with his own issues of trust, compassion, forgiveness and a sometimes very blunt honesty that together paint a picture of a man seeming, on one hand, to running towards a social and religious validation of his life and, on the other hand, running away from past hurts and disappointment – in part his dead wife and emotionally fragile daughter.
Gleeson certainly brings light and shade to a character who is complex, nuanced and realistically flawed.
To tell you any more about the “what happens in the film” would definitely spoil the experience as we try to figure out who has it in for the man in black – is it Chris O’Dowd as the local Butcher, Jack; Killian Scott as the distinctly unworldly Milo; Aiden Gillen as the world weary and sarcastic doctor, Dylan Moran as the man with too much money and too much guilt; the ageing rent boy, the woman with the secret about…. yes, it is all starting to sound like a not so family friendly game of Cluedo!
The final confrontation is a stand out nail biter that lifts and moves the film in a whole other direction – an intellectually informed and emotionally charged motive is presented as to why the Priest must go.
Writer Director John Michael McDonagh said in an interview…..
“… When I started writing it I was going to create the characters and I was only going to decide in the last 30 pages who it actually was… Until I’d written 2/3 of it.”
Crikey, even the writer didn’t know who dunnit!
And critics have had their say too…
Reviewer David Edelstein on NPR Radio described the film as…
“excruciatingly obvious and inept”…. With the “…authenticity of a fringe-theater script, laboring to be offbeat.”
While for Catholic Culture dot org, Thomas Van commented.
“Calvary is not a Catholic propaganda piece but a work of art whose beauty comes from its unflinching reality.”
Errr, did you two guys actually see the same movie?
Van ends his summary with…
“Calvary is not always comfortable to watch, but make no mistake, it is one of the greatest religious films of our time.”
You mean the “The Song of Bernadette” finally has a challenger?
And another comment – Justin Chang for Variety,
“It’s not clear at exactly what point the film has made its shift from foul-mouthed village comedy to quietly devastating passion play…”
And I’m with you on that one Mr Chang.
So, creatively quirky?An artful balance of comedy and drama? Religious allegory? Or just a little dazed and confused from too much alter wine? Your call dear congregation…
But any which way it certainly raises some valid arguments about duty and commitment and, what makes not just a good priest, but a good man… even in the underbelly of the most quaint and quirky of Irish villages.
Written and edited by: Greg Punch
Produced by: Newtown Flicks
The Film ‘Calvary’…
Duration: 101 minutes
Written and Directed by: John Michael McDonagh
Bord Scannan na hÉireann/Irish Film Board
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reference Blu-Ray disc:
©2014 Paramout Pictures / Transmission
Isaach de Bankolé
E. Emmet Walsh
Music by: Patrick Cassidy
Cinematography: Larry Smith
Editing: Chris Gill
Photos and promotional images:
Photo of John Michael McDonagh by Rachel Lovinger,
Photos of Brendan Gleason in “The Guard”,
(Sony Classic Pictures)
Photo of Brendan Gleason in “Calvary”
Article by By Kenji Lloyd Dec 12, 2013
Freeze frame of Justin Chang from Variety’s “Variety Studio” critics discussion of their favourite films at Sundance 2015 (link below)
Photo of David Edelstein:
15 April 2015 online article and photos from WNPR website – Connecticut’s Public Media Source for News and Ideas – conversation with David Edelstein (photo credit: Chion Wolf / WNPR)
Drawing of Thomas Van:
From Mr Van’s biography page on the web site of,
“Song of Bernadette”
1943 2oth Century Fox Film Corp.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Film review titled “In the Irish film Cavalry a priests crisis of faith is weirdly jokey”
From the radio program “Fresh Air”. Text version published 8 August 2014 – http://www.npr.org
Film review titled “Calvary is a must-see Catholic film” 15 September 201
Film review “Calvary” 20 January, 2014
Film Review: ‘Calvary’
Worth a read:
A delightfully sarcastic review by David Edelstein,
“Brendan Gleeson Is an Irish Priest With Problems in the Miserable Calvary”
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