Director John Michael McDonagh has returned to the big screen with another small-town Ireland caper Calvary, the story of a righteous parish priest Father James Lavelle played by Brendan Gleeson. Standing alone against the moral decay of his flock, Lavelle is informed during confession that he will be murdered in one week by a disgruntled parishioner who we are told was the victim of child abuse at the hands of the clergy. From this premise unfolds a suspenseful, archetypal who done it or rather who will do it murder mystery.
I remember being ushered by friends to my local house of screens to see McDonagh’s last effort The Guard, assured by even the more discerning of my compadres that it was a brilliantly funny piece. The film didn’t reach its billing in this reviewer’s eyes, in fact I didn’t think much of it at all. It was a rather stale, generic buddy-cop film, an inferior cousin to McDonagh’s brother Martin’s black comedy In Bruges, albeit sharing in its occasionally rhythmically funny dialogue. Calvary is worse than The Guard, it’s not just disappointing, it’s infuriating.
The film seeks depth that The Guard at least had the humility to avoid and alas fails miserably. Each character is a clichéd, sinfully obvious metaphor for some societal ill chipping away at dear ol’ Ireland. There is an African immigrant scapegoated by all around, the inexplicably ubiquitous Chris O’Dowd plays a shady butcher suspected to abuse his wife and most tediously predictable of all, there is a greedy, nihilistic Celtic Tiger banker painfully miscast in comedian Dylan Moran.
Brendan Gleeson of course gives a sterling performance and one could even be tempted into forgiving the film its pseudo-intellectual jabbings at a coherent critique of modern Ireland purely on the strength of his performance. He carries the gravitas and weather-beaten faith that McDonagh I’m sure wanted the character to display with considerable skill and aplomb. Clutching for other positive aspects of this film one might point to the sporadically superb cinematography and really quite well placed musical intrusions arranged by esteemed Irish composer Patrick Cassidy.
A simmering, underlying problem with The Guard and most of McDonagh’s work is amplified in Calvary, nostalgia. The message of the film, though clumsily muddled and delivered, is a tired refrain: Catholic Ireland had its problems but we threw the baby out with the bathwater, giddyingly entering a Gatsby-esque modernity in which all morality and its source was lost, in which the unreligious masses shout paedo at every priest in sight. McDonagh is right to see ill in modern Ireland but his Eucharistic offering of a return to religiousity is appallingly sentimental and misguided.
The film is doing remarkably well it must be said, no surprise in a land where even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. I doubt this poor review will diminish the films’ success but in a time where Ireland desperately needs art to offer reasoned critique and engaging counter narratives, Calvary offers nothing more than a sedate pining for a mythical Ireland of yesteryear. What did Marx call it, the opium of the people?
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