11 August 2014

Blu-ray Review - Calvary (2014)

Expectations are a strange phenomena, especially when it comes to entertainment. When a film comes out that we like, the sequel or the next project for the director/actors/writer/whatevers has a great weight of expectation on it to match or even surpass the first. It's odd as there's no actual reason we should feel like this, especially as the follow-up disappoints more often than not, but we still do it. I say all this because a) watching Calvary has put me in a rather philosophical mood and b) because I've been (pleasantly) blindsided by Calvary in regards to my expectations garnered from writer-director John Michael McDonagh and star Brendan Gleeson's last collaboration, 2011's darkly funny and brilliant The Guard.

Sligo, Ireland. After good natured priest Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is threatened at confession and told he'll be killed in a week's time, we follow James as he is visited by his adult daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), fresh from attempting suicide, and his interactions with the locals, all with their grudges and axes to grind against the Catholic Church and priests. As always, Brendan Gleeson is awesome. He's a fantastic actor and is incredibly engaging. His ability to express a lot by doing and saying very little is what grounds the entire piece. Even the more cartoonish locals, especially the bowtie wearing oddbod Milo, are somehow more believable by Gleeson's presence. The cast are all terrific. Chances are if they're famous and Irish, they'll make an appearance. Chris O'Dowd, Dylan Moran and Aidan Gillen all show up and do stellar work. Every element of the film just works, It's gorgeously shot, the soundtrack is offbeat, but perfectly fitting and the writing is top quality.

The opening line from the anonymous parishioner: “I was seven years old when I first tasted semen.” and Father James' understandably flabbergasted response kicks the film off down a road of tough subject matter that it continues on throughout the film. Calvary doesn't have the answers, but certainly asks some tough questions about Catholicism, its current perception and its place in the modern world. There's one rather charming scene where Father James strikes up a conversation with a young girl, which is abruptly halted and takes a nasty turn when the girl's father hurriedly pulls up and snatches her away, equating all priests with predatory monsters. It's rough stuff. I got the feeling that if I was religious I would engage with the arguments that little bit more and have a shared understanding of some of the issues, but that didn't stop me from being utterly immersed in the film from beginning to end.

So, all that “expectation” talk in the first paragraph. Y'see, The Guard was tongue-in-cheek, owing more to Father Ted than anything else. There were moments of genuinely affecting drama, but it was mostly a dark comedy complete with meta humour. If you're a fan of The Guard, Calvary will mess with you. There are flashes of Gleeson's Gerry Boyle character present in Father James. He's smart, but mostly keeps it to himself and he lives a life of simple pleasures. Even some of The Guard's meta humour (such as foreshadowing etc) appear in this film. Aidan Gillen's character is nigh-on self-aware, even remarking he's the stereotypical atheist doctor in the story. There's also some talk of “third-act revelations” when James and Fiona are discussing what their lives would be like if they were part of a stage play. That's where the similarities end, however. Tonally, Calvary is a complete different kettle of fish. It's straight-faced and angry, so don't expect many scenes of Gleeson wandering around in his pants.

There isn't really anything I can fault the film on. I've heard criticism that the film is mostly just Father James talking to people but I can't see how that's a problem. Even if you find the interactions boring (although I don't know how), there's a palpable sense of dread and fatalism that hangs over the film. It keeps you involved. It's bleak, but not so devoid of humanity that you just want to lie down in the street and stay there. It's a fantastic watch and well worth your time. Just don't be surprised if you start feeling slightly more metaphysical afterwards.

★★★★★ | Ben Browne

Drama, Indie |Ireland, 2014 | 15e | eOne UK |11th August 2014 (UK) |Dir:John Michael McDonagh | Brendan gleeson, Dylan Moran, Isaach de BankolĂ©, Chris O’Dowd |Buy:Calvary [Blu-ray] [2014]

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