Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest struggling with the Church’s reputation and with the increasingly obvious seedy underbelly of his parishioners. There’s a hint of the man he may have once been in the fact of his not drinking anymore, but for the most part Lavelle is a quietly decent man with an open ear for the problems of others. When John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary opens, Lavelle is confronted by an unidentified man in the confession booth. In retribution for the years of abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest in adolescence, the unnamed parishioner will kill Lavelle the following week, relishing the irony of killing a priest on a Sunday. “That’ll be a good one.” Lavelle has nothing to say, but promises to come up with something by Sunday week.
And thus, like George Falconer in A Single Man, Lavelle encounters a number of characters in his close-knit Sligo community through a new filter of his own mortality. One such character being his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), a product of his pre-priesthood life as a family man. Fiona is troubled but blasé, a fresh set of bandages on her wrists dismissed with a shrug and brief mentions of a boy. Whilst trying to smooth this relationship, Lavelle also tries to help those around him but finds it for the most part to be an uphill battle of flaunted adultery and drug taking.
Father Lavelle is a beautiful creation by Gleeson, an outwardly placid seeming man with just a flicker of frustration and pain bubbling beneath the surface. It’s a quietly dignified performance bolstered by its total lack of showiness and one completely deserving of every merit. Gleeson’s supporting cast are given the best lines though in the blackly humourous confrontational scenes, with Lavelle’s piousness being undone by the likes of Aidan Gillen’s cynical doctor Frank (“great cocaine…very moreish”) and Chris O’Dowd’s shuffling Jack. Dylan Moran is the absolute scene stealer though as Michael “very expensive” Fitzgerald.
All in all Calvary is a slow meditative character piece about a man trying to hide his disappointment at not only those around him but also in himself. It’s not entirely successful, Lavelle and Fiona’s relationship never seems to reveal quite as much as it should and the pacing doesn’t feel quite as sharp as it probably could. But in capturing the bleakly funny exchanges of everyday small town life, McDonagh has created a community of memorable characters, and a darkly resonant tale.