Berlin 2014: ‘Calvary’ review

Whilst his brother Martin crossed the Atlantic for sophomore feature Seven Psychopaths, director John Michael McDonagh follows up 2011’s The Guard with Calvary (2014), another Irish-set tale of moral musings and gallows humour. Teaming up with the ursine Brendan Gleeson once again, with support this time round from Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Chris O’Dowd and Kelly Reilly, McDonagh does fall just short of bettering his debut offering. In attempting to take one admirably grand step forward, Calvary is actually something of a minor regression, with McDonagh’s dramedy struggling to find its sense of balance.

Informed of his own impending demise by a mystery sexual abuse victim during Sunday confession, kind-hearted community priest Father James Lavelle (Gleeson) is given just one week to “put his house in order”. With most of his wayward flock seemingly in possession of their own unique set of motives for offing our man of the cloth, Lavelle sets out to find the individual responsible for the sinister threat. Could it be local cuckolded butcher Jack Brennan (O’Dowd), his bed-hopping wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) or perhaps even her Ghana-born lover Simon Asamoah (Isaach de Bankolé)? The arrival of Lavelle’s troubled daughter Fiona (Reilly) further muddies the water as the potentially bloody Sunday swiftly approaches.

Leading parts for Gleeson have proved as rare as hen’s teeth over the years, so it’s heartwarming to see the bearded Irish actor getting top billing here. His Lavelle is satisfyingly complex: a former alcoholic and now widower who, in the antagonist’s own words, is “completely innocent”. He’s a man completely aware of his own myriad flaws and weaknesses, illustrated perfectly in one scene featuring himself and Moran’s hideously rich finance tycoon Michael Fitzgerald in which he concedes to being judgemental: “I try not to be”, he calmly admits, moments before Fitzgerald desecrates a ludicrously expensive painting in a most inventive way. Unfortunately, Moran and a resurgent Reilly aside, the background characters aren’t quite as well developed as one would perhaps have expected from a writer of McDonagh’s calibre.

Playing out like a 100-minute game of Cluedo with the breathtaking Irish coast as its tourist-baiting backdrop (or the “Wild West”, as one newspaper puts it), Calvary is entertaining enough whilst it lasts but lacks the crucial clarity of thought when it comes to addressing some of its more topical themes: child abuse in the Catholic Church, racial prejudice, suicide etc. A few rungs below the likes of brother Martin’s In Bruges and his own The Guard on the philosophical black comedy ladder, McDonagh’s difficult second album too often finds itself retreading old ground, as if all films made in Ireland, about Ireland have to include all the requisite sociological debates. His central conceit and growing ambition are nothing short of divine – its the final execution that’s sinful. 

The 2014 Berlin Film Festival takes place from 6-16 February. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link. 

Daniel Green