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Better Safe Than Sorry?

Rosie Lavan

Dir. John Michael McDonagh
Reprisal Films
Now showing at the Phoenix Picturehouse, on Walton Street

The adverts on the buses in Dublin were hailing the Eastertide Calvary as a must-see black comedy. The Channel 4 News presenter furrowed her brow as she asked its star, Brendan Gleeson, what the film told us about the status of authority figures in post-recession Ireland. Xan Brooks in the Observer was effusive in his praise for what he called “a rambunctious game of postmodern Cluedo”. But whatever you look for in Calvary, you risk disappointment.

It is true that the opening sequence of the film is arresting. All we see is the face of Father James Lavelle, played by the ever-brilliant Gleeson. Father James is in the confessional, listening to a man who describes—in terribly direct terms—the sexual abuse he suffered from a priest at the age of seven, and for years afterwards. The man has concluded that the only effective way to avenge the Church for this awful, protracted experience is to kill a good priest, and Father James is the one he has chosen. He will kill him on the beach the following Sunday, he says, but he grants him a week to put his house in order. Gleeson sets the tone for his portrayal in these opening minutes; his Father James has no illusions about the transgressions of the Catholic clergy and no surprise that redress should be sought by one who suffered them. He is just tired, frustrated, and given to weathered irony.

As the film unfolds day by day, Father James makes his rounds of the small Sligo town by the sea, his traditional soutane billowing around him as he encounters parishioners who are by turns absurd and menacing. Their comic-book strangeness is for the audience’s intrigue: Father James knows who it was that has vowed to kill him but we have to sit it out and await revelation, or make the effort to guess. Brooks presumably meant his Cluedo quip as a compliment—the plot is littered with red herrings and it would be unfair to give them away here—but the limits of writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s screenplay mean that characterisation goes no further than the crude stereotypes which are familiar from the board game. Through these lazily drawn cut-outs the film shoots at parody, and misses.

Dylan Moran’s turn as a property developer who got fat off the land during the Celtic Tiger years, but now finds himself alone and surrounded by the trappings of his wealth, is flatly tedious. Are we really supposed to believe that he has purchased Hans Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ to hang on the wall in his Big House, or is this a clever joke? Either way, when he seeks to prove to the priest that he cares nothing for what his money has bought him by hoisting the picture off the wall and urinating all over it, Father James just looks at him with terse confusion, and we can understand why. Female sexuality is crassly drawn in the character of the insatiable Veronica, whose every word rings naff; so too homosexuality, in the character of Leo, who provides physical gratification to the local police inspector. Most problematic is the way race, and racism, in Ireland is addressed through the character of Simon (Isaach de Bankolé), a mechanic from the Ivory Coast who has moved to the town. The heavy-handed joke which turns on the ignorance of the butcher who checks himself for calling Simon “black” rather than “coloured”—he didn’t mean to be racist, he assures Father James—is matched by the failure of what is presumably supposed to be a postmodern, postcolonial double-bluff when Simon and Father James trade words on morality and the missions.

Pulling against all this is the film’s tendency towards sentimentalism. One of the reasons Father James makes a good priest, we understand, is because he is a man of the world—put simply, he is a recovering alcoholic. What’s more, he is a priest with a daughter: he only felt his vocation after the death of her mother, the wife he loved dearly. Raised in England, that now-grown daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), just happens to need to come and visit her father this same eventful week because she has tried to commit suicide after a disastrous relationship in London. Their dialogues take place by the wild Atlantic, in country lanes, and in the confessional itself, when her word “Father” inevitably becomes a shifting referent. Fiona’s suggestion that their conversations might have the ring of “one of those shit plays at the Abbey” with a “corny” but likeable denouement finds the film protesting too much.

It is these moments, not to mention the end of the film itself, which undermine the claim made on the Dublin buses. It would be na√Øve to ignore that Calvary is driven by the ambition to capture the state of the nation: why else does the film begin with, and keep returning to, the stunning shots of Ireland’s west coast? Larry Smith’s beautiful cinematography might in fact be read as one of the most nostalgic features of the film—along with the red-haired Reilly’s costumes, which have her well and truly dressed for the tourist’s Ireland in rib-knit jerseys and a green woollen coat. McDonagh’s film fails to achieve the same shocking subversion to be found in the cracked and crazed comedy-dramas of his brother, Martin McDonagh. Instead, Gleeson’s immense talent is wasted in a film which could bring out the cynic in us all. Calvary cheapens the very serious subject which motivates the central plot by simply grabbing it and weaving it in with other zeitgeist-y strands which make it easy to see why both the Irish Film Board and the British Film Institute were willing to back it. It is hard to find adequate terms with which to describe the appalling scale of abuse perpetrated by the Catholic clergy, the cover-ups which followed, and the effects which will be felt for decades to come. Certainly Calvary, which fails in both satire and sympathy, is not up to the task.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.