Calvary: McDonagh’s Irish Drama of Father and Daughter

John Michael McDonagh wrote and directed Calvary, Irish drama starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Domhnall Gleeson, M. Emmet Walsh and Isaach de Bankolé.

The film was screened at the 2014 Sundance Film Fest and at the 64th Berlin Film Fest.

Though McDonagh had a fairly clear idea in advance of who he wanted for each role in Calvary, securing the right people at the right time was the challenge.

As Father James tours his village in the eventful seven days after his deadly threat by a would-be assassin, he encounters worshipers who seem to simultaneously revile his presence yet yearn for his counsel.

They are such a flamboyant mix of mischievous cynics, nihilists and hedonists – a distinctly modern mélange of the broken, disaffected and irreverently disillusioned – that the diversity of the ensemble drew a particularly accomplished cast, with many of the film’s actors taking unpredictable turns.

“It’s a script for actors, so it was a gift. We got an amazing reaction from the acting community,” recalls Fernandez Marengo.

Brendan Gleeson, who was there with McDonagh when he conceived the story (at a pub in Galway), was already a lock.  Known for roles ranging from Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK to the action-adventure TROY to the comic thriller IN BRUGES (directed by McDonagh’s brother, Martin), and then THE GUARD, this role would take him to places he’d never before been, as he contemplated the full contours of the seemingly honorable yet mortally endangered Father James.

Gleeson’s earthy, humane priest was not that long ago himself a layman, married with a daughter until the crisis of his wife’s death provoked a spiritual change.  Since then, he has devoted himself to a rather long-lost ideal – to being steadfast, decent and forgiving in a world where steadfastness, decency and forgiveness can come off as entirely absurd.

Father James’ parishioners make it plenty clear that they question the point of his metaphysical ideals, the arrogance of his authority, not to mention his relevance to their daily lives.  Yet, there beneath the priest’s unavoidable sense of self-irony and dismay, remains a current of longing that perhaps he can still comfort the sick, aid the desperate and absolve the ever-magnifying sins of his parish.

Father James seems to be almost the last of a dying tribe, a man defiantly out of sync with our cynical times — which made him utterly compelling to Gleeson.

“The story is about the notion of goodness,” says the actor.  “We’re in a very strange time, when it’s difficult for people to believe in heroes any more. I play a lot of anti-heroes and that’s easy to do when disillusionment has set in. But I believe we’re swimming against the tide with CALVARY. It’s kind of revolutionary now to think of goodness as an aspiration.”

He was drawn to Father James as a man who genuinely believes in being good—but not in order to avoid being bad in some bland, benign way; rather, Father James aims at decency and humility because it is the most uncompromising, even courageous choice when surrounded by corruption and earned mistrust.  The more he explored Father James’ inner life, the more it took its toll – but like the priest he portrays, Gleeson says he tried to skirt despair.

“As we were making the film, the notion of this man suffering for other people’s sins somehow became very real to me,” Gleeson reflects.  “It was almost as if I was some kind of syringe, sucking the toxic poison of cynicism out of people. Day by day, scene by scene, it was remorseless. I was supposed to be the good fellow who has all the answers. The priest is supposed to be a beacon of hope. But I did find it very difficult emotionally.”

He continues: “When you are playing a character that is constantly under emotional assault, you also have to be in that place.  It was a very intense shoot; a short, intense shoot. It could be relentless, absorbing all that contempt and hate and poison . . . and you begin to understand, in a personal way, the notion of Calvary,” he continues, referencing the film’s title, based on the locale of the Crucifixion, and a word which has come to mean any experience of intense mental questioning or transformation through anguish.

Though Gleeson acknowledges that the Catholic vestments have come to be viewed with warranted scorn and anger in the wake of so many shattering scandals, he says when he put them on, he saw them through Father James’ eyes.   “When you put the uniform on unashamedly, it becomes a very particular journey,” he says.  “I honestly felt like I was the protectorate of goodness.”

That goodness, however, meets inner and outer obstacles at every turn and Gleeson relished exploring the details of Father James’ rather slippery relationships with his challenging parishioners.  “The ensemble cast is a big part of CALVARY,” says Gleeson. “There’s a larger-than-life quality in all the actors and they brought phenomenal energy. Each person came in with the most amazing sense of commitment and preparation. It’s a testament to John but it’s a testament to them as well.  Every week we had new presences taking the place by storm.”

Gleeson worked particularly closely with Kelly Reilly, who plays his self-described “troubled” daughter Fiona, arriving fresh off a botched suicide that has left her very much alive, if shell-shocked.  Her presence becomes a kind of catharsis for the priest, both as a Father and as a father.

“The scenes that John had written between the priest and Fiona really broke my heart,” says Gleeson.  “This is a man whose fatherhood, on both counts, is being undermined, when all he wants to do is love.”

Reilly, a rising English actress who has been seen in FLIGHT and SHERLOCK HOLMES, was drawn to Fiona’s fractured but palpable strength.

“John wrote a wonderful character in Fiona. I completely got her straight away,” says Reilly.  “I love how smart and creative she is. She’s sort of her own woman.”

As for her recurring death wish, Reilly says, “We don’t really know why.  She just shows up in town lost, and we know she has very troubled relationships with men.  Maybe she is bi-polar, somebody who is very smart but cannot manage her depression. She has a lot of issues she needs to face – and one of the main issues is her relationship with her father.”

Reilly notes that though Fiona sees an uncrossable gulf between herself and her father – whose shocking choice to leave their family life and join the priesthood, of all things, felt like a kind of betrayal — there is still an abiding love between them that has helped her stay afloat.

“We find out, during the course of the film, that after her mum passed away, Fiona’s father joined the priesthood, left his past life behind, returned to Ireland, and left Fiona bereft of both parents,” she explains.  “It’s not that they haven’t kept in contact. They do, but their relationship is not in a good place.  Now, though she doesn’t know about the threat he is facing, she’s exploring – emotionally and intellectually – the demons between them that need to be expelled.”