Dir. John Michael McDonagh, 2014

John Michael McDonagh’s films inhabit a warped version of Ireland. It’s a place of cynicism, isolation, craggy countryside and lurking intrigue. However, its characters are also downright funny, dripping with the director’s trademark jet-black sense of humour. Calvary is certainl­­y no exception and builds on the not-for-the-faint-hearted themes established in 2011’s critically acclaimed The Guard.

Calvary, which takes its name from the site of Jesus’s crucifixion, is an out-and-out morality tale set amongst the bleak fields of County Sligo. It begins with a priest being threatened with murder during confession, kicking off a spiralling and damning portrait of small-town Irish life. In short, imagine an incredibly morbid episode of Father Ted involving adulterers, addicts and would-be murderers.

McDonagh again casts his muse Brendan Gleeson as a grizzled, sympathetic authority figure. Under another director, this could smack of Liam Neeson-esque typecasting, but Gleeson carries the right amount of emotional, and physical, heft to pull the role off. As the Catholic priest, his role here is part Shakespearean hero, part Agatha Christie sleuth as he moves from confrontation to confrontation with his troubled flock.

These tense scenes, which range from a bar brawl to art defecation (don’t ask) via animal cruelty and a burning church, are the film’s strongest by far and highlight a simmering distrust between the Irish clergy and laity. The action naturally feels somewhat flat between these galling episodes, but this lends an uncanny sense of drawing breath before another plunge into the sea of cynicism and local eccentricity.

This tone and an impressive supporting ‘who’s who’ of Irish acting talent, including a terrifically uppity turn from Dylan Moran and a brooding Chris O’Dowd, mean the overall result is equally beguiling and smothering. Expect even better, bigger things from Mr McDonagh in the future.

Here’s the trailer:


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