Calvary is currently streaming on Netflix UK.
There are two immediate hooks in the opening scene of 2014 Irish drama Calvary. The first one sets up the central suspense that will quietly hang over the rest of the film, and will go almost unmentioned again until its dramatic resolution at the very end. The second hook, and arguably the more powerful one, is Brendan Gleeson’s face. The marvellously expressive wrinkles, the beautiful beard - almost unlikely in its tameness and softness - the sad, tired and infinitely kind eyes tell us everything we need to know about Father James.
The scene is masterfully framed and lit and is set in a confessional booth where Father James hears the shocking opener: “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old”.
Sadly, with the dialogue comes the first false note of the film: “It’s certainly a startling opening line”, is the priest’s too-apt response.
The man on the other side of the booth voices the concern of the viewing audience: “What is that? Irony?”.
“I’m sorry, let’s start again.”
It’s as if writer-director John Michael McDonough recognised the artificiality and theatricality of such a response, but just couldn’t help himself. It’s an awfully clever way to open a film, isn't it?
That first scene sums everything that is good and bad about Calvary, everything that works beautifully and everything that rings uncomfortably false.
The snappy opening is immediately followed by a heart-wrenching account of child abuse and a death threat directed at the innocent protagonist, who is expected to answer for the crimes of another priest as well as the whole of the Catholic Church. It seems the mood is set. But as Father James makes the rounds of his small sea-side town we encounter a parade of characters and with them an incoherent mess of acting styles that makes us question again what film we’re actually watching.
The most dumbfounding of these is Killian Scott’s portrayal of Milo, who seems to have landed straight from an episode of The Big Bang Theory, with his nerdy hairstyle, his bowtie, and that rather tired indie-movie cliché of playing Asperger’s for laughs.
Is Calvary a drama that explores the ills of contemporary Ireland - the Church’s paedophilia scandals, alcoholism, the financial crash and the cynicism that followed - or a black comedic study of Irish small-town quirks and local weirdos?
Many have argued that this constant switch of tone is deliberate, and that we have to laugh lest we despair. Of course it is deliberate, but a successful balance between tragedy and comedy is insanely difficult. In fact, it might be the most difficult thing to do in any art and Calvary stands as a great testament to this truth.
Apart from eliciting laughs, much of the dialogue seems to be focused on showing off the writer’s verbal panache. What this means for the film’s characters is that each of them, no matter who they are and where they are in life, is remarkably articulate and self-aware. Every single person Father James encounters demonstrates almost shocking frankness, a sharp wit and a perfect understanding of their existential predicament. A local doctor who no longer believes in what he does, a flamboyant male prostitute who hides a tragic past, a dying American writer, a desperate housewife who is having an open affair with a car mechanic from Ivory Coast, and the car mechanic himself - each one of them is equally masterful at spelling out their role and position in the structure of the story.
One character refers to his life as an ‘affectation’ and that word is then difficult to shake off in relation to the film as a whole. Stylised dialogue works best when the fictional world is appropriately stylised around it. Here, it clashes with the attempt at social and moral commentary, making it seem flippant and insincere.
This becomes most problematic in a scene in which Father James visits a prisoner (played by Gleeson’s son Domhnall) serving life for serial torture and cannibalism. In it, the description of harrowing crimes and individual victims serves as an excuse for witty verbal exchanges between the symbolic good and the symbolic evil, betraying a certain amount of emotional tone-deafness.
On the other hand, Calvary contains quiet moments of genuine emotion and beauty: Father James hugging his dog Bruno - big, kind and soft, like the priest himself; his reaction to a burning church; a moment of connection and forgiveness between him and his daughter. And, of course, Larry Smith’s majestic wide-angle cinematography: so controlled, so precise, and so affecting with its deep blacks and muted blues, greens and greys. Particularly when it captures the Irish coastal landscape and the sea, the sea…
The central mystery of who threatened Father James in the confessional booth at the beginning is not resolved until the very end, but for those paying attention, the cinematography provides some heavy hints, albeit in a wonderfully poetic, associative way.
And last, but not least, there is one performance in Calvary that manages to achieve the rare feat of successfully balancing comedy and tragedy, overwritten dialogue and sincere emotion. As an insanely rich, desperately lonely, and empty-on-the-inside financial crook, Dylan Moran goes from pissing on Hans Holbein’s original of ‘The Ambassadors’ (for kicks) to baring his tortured soul to Father James without seeming forced or unnatural. His Michael Fitzgerald is a whole person - funny and pitiable in equal measure.
Moran’s performance brings together harmoniously all the things that clash uncomfortably in the rest of the film, giving us a glimpse into what Calvary is actually trying to achieve.