Something in the writing and directing of Martin and John Michael McDonagh strikes a chord in me as they exchange blows releasing feature films one after the other. Martin McDonagh (In Bruges/Seven Psychopaths) is said to be the playwright of the two, originating from a theatrical career and taking breaks from film to continue his work for the stage. However, it is clear his desire for character performance pieces is not at all absent in his older brother John Michael. In Calvary, he has produced another exceptional character study set amongst a rather simple story, albeit whilst portraying several weighty issues, in an immensely watchable drama.
Set in a small town near Sligo in the north of Ireland, Calvary sees Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, The Guard, Gangs of New York) as a decent priest who is threatened with murder during a confession. With a week to live, Gleeson struggles with his acrimonious parishioners whilst seeking advice on his situation from his superior and the police and trying to reconnect with his daughter.
The title sequence feels like the establishing shots of a love-letter to Ireland but what follows is more accurately an honest look at the country today, dealing with clashes between past and present or religion and just about everything else. In one shot, an aerial view of the beautiful green and rocky coastline and in another a medical professional snorting cocaine. It deals with some dark issues: paedophilia, domestic violence and suicide to name a few. But it should come as little surprise to those who have seen the previous work of either of the McDonaghs that there are a few truly hilarious moments peppered amongst the darkness and these help maintain the balance between reality and entertainment and watchability; McDonagh is telling a story not giving a sermon. There are one or two cruder jokes that feel a little too like attempted crowd-pleasers in their current formation (such as urinating on a painting) but they still manage to fit within the world, even if I felt the film would have been better off with these moments left for the out-takes.
The script is also a little dialogue-heavy. The writing is realistic and compelling, the performances equally so, but it plays out more like a play than a film at times. Theatre is arguably an actors’ medium and film a directors’ one, whilst writing seems to bleed between the two. Here is a film that in parts could be translated with nothing lost onto the stage, even with a classic allusion to Chekov’s gun theory which can only have been written that way on purpose. However, what would be lost in this translation is Ireland itself and this would be a travesty for McDonagh’s cinematography is gorgeously grey and dreary which sounds paradoxical until it is seen. Furthermore, I personally get a lot of enjoyment from watching talented actors perform strongly written characters and dialogue whatever the context and so the amount of conversation between them was only a minor gripe for me but it might be more of a problem for those audiences who need to see action rather than words; note that life is not always like that even if cinema consistently tells us that it is.