In Calvary, the new film by director and writer John Patrick McDonagh, Ireland’s Brenan Gleeson gives a slow burn performance as James Lavelle, a good man navigating a murderous time. That he also happens to be an Irish Catholic priest is a major plot point in a film that has a lot to say about exploding expectations. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to Gleeson about this dark and difficult new thriller.Good men rarely fare well in the epically dysfunctional Ireland of the two McDonagh brothers (both playwright and director Martin, 44, and writer and director John Michael, 46, have now carved out separate but thematically overlapping film careers).
This rule is especially true for Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) the good man besieged by a bunch of lunatic Sligo locals in John Patrick McDonagh’s Calvary.
For both McDonaghs, who grew up in London to parents from counties Galway and Sligo, you’re rarely ever more than 10 feet away from violence, aggression, murder or mayhem. But Calvary may set a new record for villainy and heartbreak even by their own dark standards.
We’ve certainly been down this good-man-dying-for-our-sins road before in any number of westerns, but McDonagh really turns the genre on its head with some of the unexpected choices he makes and the compelling characters he creates.
Calvary got its start as shooting wrapped on The Guard, the award-winning debut feature film that Gleeson and McDonagh first collaborated on.
“We talked about the idea of a good man in the midst of all this – the abuse crisis, the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy – and how do you maintain your sense of what it is you came in to do in the first place?” Gleeson tells the Irish Voice.
One of the things to emerge from there was the need for an uplifting ending in their next film project. The times seemed to demand it. So Gleeson sees the message of the new film as being one that’s filled with compassion and hope. It could even be considered heroic.
“But it’s a hard won hope. The legacy of an abusive childhood (the film’s subject matter) is a lifetime of pain. It’s not a case of let’s get on with it and forget about it as Father Leary (David Wilmot) says in the film,” Gleeson says.
“You know this notion that all this bad stuff happened 30 years ago, let’s just forget about it and get on with it, is really not a sufficient response.”
It was the duality of the film’s message that convinced Gleeson to sign up, he reveals.
“Yes there are good men working in the church who are trying to do good things. But also the damage caused by the abuse is not easily swept away.”
One of the film’s A list cast members – spoiler alert I’m not going to say who – takes it upon himself to pursue justice for an abusive childhood at the hands of a priest.
“I’m not sure he gets justice,” Gleeson interjects. “I think he gets revenge, but that’s a poisoned chalice. I really think he ends up in the same place, the same prison, as the guy in the film who is psychopathic and who eats people. I’m not sure if there’s really an awful lot of justice in that.
“What’s more important -- and again this is a spoiler alert -- there’s compassion and there is a scene of forgiveness in the end.”
Reading the script for the first time, Gleeson admits he could not see how his character could get to the point of forgiveness.
“For me it seemed too hard. But in performance I watched actress Kelly Reilly and she was so good that things progressed and it became more believable. We actually see a response,” he says.
“It would have been ‘cooler’ to have left the film with open questions, but I’m really delighted that John Michael committed to hope.”
It’s that final commitment to hope that makes his work strikingly different from his much more saturnine brothers in some ways. John Michael apparently wants to believe in the potential for hope, or at least he allows it as a possibility.
Meanwhile, Gleeson is clear about the film’s western elements in this white hats versus black hats showdown.
“Whether its Monument Valley or Ben Bulben, there’s a human scale and a mythic scale to the landscape. We look huge and we look tiny,” Gleeson says.
“There’s a Gary Cooper thing about this man absorbing all the slings and bats of his community. I think that structurally there are references to westerns.
“[McDonagh] set out very deliberately to write a non-cynical film. He embraced all the great themes and made a good man the driver of the action. I think the writing is monumental. In Ireland people appreciated the honesty, they did not feel that there was a propagandist agenda going on. Both sides were given due deference to their opinions, both had their voices heard in the movie. I’m delighted that it falls into the place where hope is possible.”
Ireland is going through a bit of a dark time at the moment, a time of coming to terms with the past. Does Gleeson think the film addresses that?
“I do, but I think that the context is more universal than that. The notion of the treachery that was visited on the people by the politicians and the banks and the clergy and all the authority figures – all the leaders – were found wanting and uncaring.”
It’s very easy to sink into bitterness and disillusionment, says Gleeson.
“We have that choice and I’m not sure if we’re avoiding it particularly. My own personal opinion is that people have to take responsibility for their own disillusionment and the have to fight it.
“Obviously leadership is needed. But as well as that we have to man up now. It’s the reason that we wanted independence, we can’t blame colonialism. It’s been 100 years, get over it.
“It’s not anyone else’s fault. We did this to ourselves. I think we have to recognize that and not be whining that it’s some historical thing. If it is we need to recognize and get over it. But we can’t blame anyone else for this one.”
At some point in Calvary all of the characters – which are portrayed by Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Pat Shortt and others -- hold their own responsibility for their own optimism or cynicism. They’re given the choice by the priest to make a decision.
“They have his own example to make a commitment to a better way of doing things,” says Gleeson. “Call it faith, hope and charity, a belief in human kindness. His commitment to that is what they have to get on board with. They have to want to see the beauty of life. We see the limbo they’re in.”
There are very few women in the film, but the ones who do come in have a massive impact in terms of the vulnerability and strength that they exhibit. Marie Josee Croze’s character Teresa gives Father Lavelle the strength to face what he needs to face.
“That for me is a heartbreaking thing to watch. She’s the saint in the company. The solidity of her faith, even though she’s lost her husband and is deeply wounded, can be seen in her commitment to go on. It gives Father Lavelle and the film the spiritual lift it needs.”
Is McDonagh delighted with the film’s amazing critical reception and word of mouth?
“He hates the term little gem,” laughs Gleeson. “He wants the film to be seen on small screens and multiplexes. He wants the film to be able to cope with either.”
Calvary is now playing nationwide.