Film review: Calvary

David Gritten / 29 August 2014

Saga film critic David Gritten salutes the brilliance of actor Brendan Gleeson.

Is there a more watchable actor in all the film industry than Brendan Gleeson? Gradually, as if by stealth, this Irish maestro has inveigled his way into the memories of the most casual cinemagoers with a succession of memorable performances.

In Calvary, which is released on DVD this month, he’s unquestionably the focal point, playing a priest for a rural Irish parish. His Father James, bearded and often glowering, is a good man who has struggled with life’s problems; he has forsaken drink with some difficulty, and before entering the priesthood he was married, then widowed.

Yet nothing in Father James’s chequered life prepares him for what happens in the opening scene of Calvary, in which he hears confession from an anonymous parishioner, who tells him he was abused by other Catholic priests from an early age. The man has decided to avenge himself on the church by killing a priest – not a wrongdoer, but a virtuous one. Father James is his target, a week hence.

The rest of Calvary shows him interacting with members of his flock, not knowing if any of them might be involved in plotting the crime. It’s a test of his faith and he faces his destiny looking more weary than scared. Calvary may be a flawed film, and never quite lives up to the extraordinary promise of that opening scene, but Gleeson’s performance is spellbinding. This is a provocative story, to say the least, but he’s the man to shepherd us through it.

Calvary was written and directed by John Michael McDonough, who was also responsible for another huge success of Gleeson’s The Guard (2011), a darkly funny account of a disreputable but honourable country policeman confronting bad guys in his own inimitable fashion. And McDonough’s brother Martin wrote and directed In Bruges (2008), in which Gleeson was paired with Colin Farrell; they played a pair of hitmen laying low in the Belgian city. Once again, dark humour was the prevailing tone.

These three films have all been among the biggest box-offices success in Irish film history – yet Gleeson is appreciated widely by film-makers outside his native land. Steven Spielberg (A.I.), Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York) and the late Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain) have all cast him in key roles.   

In addition, of course, Gleeson has been a staple of Harry Potter films, playing Mad-Eye Moody. You could assemble a film festival based around his best work; as it is, all the films I’ve mentioned are available on DVD and highly recommendable.

As it happens, there’s a new film starring Gleeson out this week. A charming comedy, The Grand Seduction sees him as Murray, a Newfoundland man in a small fishing village scheming to turn around its declining fortunes. A new petrochemical facility may re-locate there, providing new jobs - but the company insists on the village having its own doctor. Murray tries to sweet-talk a young big-city medic with a bad-boy history into taking the job.

You may think The Grand Seduction is a very minor landmark in Gleeson’s career. Perhaps it is. But what a career.

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