By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Irish character actor Brendan Gleeson has always been a force to be reckoned with as a supporting player or co-star in such films as Gangs of New York, The Guard, The Tailor of Panama, In Bruges, The Company You Keep, The Grand Seduction, three Harry Potter flicks, and dozens of others.
But he hasn’t turned up as the stand-alone leading man since he grabbed us by the lapels as a Dublin folk hero and criminal in The General in 1998.
Calvary gives him the chance to do just that and he makes the jump to center stage look easy.
It’s a dark, Ireland-set drama, a tale with gallows-humor trimmings that examines the difficulty of holding onto one’s faith, set against the backdrop of the scenic Irish coast.
The film opens during an otherwise ordinary Sunday confession, when Gleeson as community priest Father James is being told – by someone we can’t see or identify – that the confessor as a child was a victim of rape and abuse by a priest.
His abuser, he goes on to say, is now dead but he seeks some form of revenge. So he plans to kill Father James, but he will give him a week to “put his house in order.”
But why target Father James?
Because, says the threatening parishioner, killing an innocent priest will have more impact and serve as more of a parallel to what happened to him years before than going after a more deserving sinner.
As we follow the film’s who-dun-it thrust, we encounter cuckolded butcher Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd), his unfaithful wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), and Simon (Isaach de Bankole), the Ghana-born man she has gotten involved with. Also Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), a cynical physician who mocks Father James’ steadfastness, and Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a wealthy landowner who seem to find meaning in anything he owns or does.
And Father James visits incarcerated serial killer Freddie Joyce (played by Domhnall Gleeson, the star’s real-life son).
All of them are earthy and graphic in their discussions with Father James, as if daring him to reveal his intimate knowledge of the world they now dwell in. And they seem to be registering a collective resentment of his sturdy grip on his faith despite the obvious existence of evil in the contemporary world.
Of course, it would not be accurate to describe Father James as typical. After all, he’s a recovered alcoholic, a widower, and a father who came to the priesthood after his wife died. And we also get to know his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), following a failed suicide attempt, when she turns up during the one week her father has been granted by his potential murderer. She makes it obvious that it was his opting for the life of a priest that now has his only child feeling abandoned by him.
He is, in other words, a man who has experienced and then exited the secular life for the priesthood. So when his parishioners tell him of their earthly flaws and transgressions, he knows first-hand of what they speak.
The screenplay by writer-director John Michael McDonagh alludes to the controversial issue of sexual abuse by priests and the accusations of institutional cover-ups when Father James engages in a friendly conversation with a young girl he doesn’t know as she walks down the road, and her angry father intervenes as if the priest’s intentions were predatory and whisks her away.
McDonagh (The Guard), whose brother Martin directed In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, doesn’t navigate the mystery elements satisfyingly – it’s almost an unnecessary distraction — but the existential drama at the heart of the film is thought-provoking and tense.
The structure of Calvary can’t help but recall – and McDonagh wants us to – the classic 1952 western, High Noon, with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Just as the abandoned sheriff waited to face his intended executioners alone as the clock counted down to his appointment with doom, so does Father James.
As the film rests squarely on the formidable shoulders of the unfussily charismatic Gleeson, with his principled priest facing death with not only courage and dignity but fear as well, his intensity, directness, dry wit, obvious intelligence, and accessible anger conspire to comprise a compelling, layered portrait of a man well worth watching and wondering about.
So we’ll confess to 3 stars out of 4. Calvary may struggle with the struggle to find meaning in a world seemingly gone mad, but Brendan Gleeson gives us an indelible character study that can’t help but stay with us.