Humour balances dark drama

By Peter Calder

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson star in Calvary, set in the coastal village in Ireland.
Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson star in Calvary, set in the coastal village in Ireland.

The voice on the other end of the phone doesn't sound like that of an Irishman. But it's an Irishman you expect to be talking to when you speak to John Michael McDonagh.

The writer-director of the knockabout The Guard (in which Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle play buddy cops divided by an Atlantic-sized cultural abyss) has made a new film, about a tormented priest (Gleeson again). Both are very specifically located on the west coast of the Emerald Isle but the man talking to me is pure "Sarf London".

"I was born and grew up in South London," he says. "My parents were Irish and came over to find work in the 60s. They retired to Ireland in the 90s. They live in Galway and I get back and forth two or three times a year. But I'm a Cockney."

Both John and and his brother, Martin, Ireland's foremost playwright, locate their work firmly in Ireland (although Martin's big-screen success was In Bruges). Calvary is shot in the coastal village of Strandmill, a famous surfing spot in County Sligo.

In the opening scene Father James Lavelle is told by a parishioner at confession that he's going to kill him as retribution for sexual abuse. Never mind that Lavelle is blameless and the perpetrator is long dead. Killing an innocent priest will have much more shock value.

Needless to say, Lavelle knows who his intended killer is, but we don't find out until the end. And McDonagh says that when he wrote the threat he didn't know who was uttering it.

"I didn't decide who it was going to be until about two-thirds of the way through writing the script. Once we find out, it makes us look back very differently on a specific scene, in which a throwaway line becomes a very dark joke made at the joker's own expense, but we as the audience don't realise that."

Is sexual abuse by the clergy becoming a preoccupation for Irish film-makers?

Not really. Philomena dealt with it obliquely, but the other ones that have dealt with it have been quite banal and po-faced.

Maybe it's a bit like Vietnam, that the movies didn't start coming out until five or 10 years after the war had finished. Certainly the subject is not going to go away. The church spent years trying to brush it under the carpet and that didn't work and with the new Pope it looks like they are finally trying to face up to it.

It's a difficult subject because to deal with the subject full-on you'd be making a horror movie and I didn't want to make a horror movie so I tried to approach it at an oblique angle.


Director John Michael McDonagh.

You call the film a black comedy but it's really a comedy in the first half and an existential tragedy in the second.

It's a drama with humour running through it, I suppose. I don't think I could write a full-on drama that didn't have moments of comedy in it, because that's not what life is like. Once you get past the middle sequence, it starts to get very, very dark and there's no coming back from that, really.

But I am surprised when I see it with audiences how much the humour survives. I think some of those scenes are so bleak that the audience is looking for any kind of relief.

Lavelle has a line late in the film when says "forgiveness is highly underrated". Is that ultimately what you want people to take away from the movie?

Not necessarily. I also have his colleague priest saying "I think we should forgive and forget because it was so long ago", but obviously he's an idiot. I don't think you should ever forget; whether you forgive is up to your own individual moral choice.

The appearance of stand-up comedian and Black Books star Dylan Moran as an embittered alcoholic billionaire was a surprise. Why did you cast him?

I actually cast quite a lot of comic actors -- or people best known for comedy, anyway -- in a way to sort of wrong-foot the audience. Chris O'Dowd and a lot of the supporting cast are known for sitcoms in Ireland.

I enjoyed casting those people because audiences aren't used to seeing them [in serious roles]. And they're good fun to have round on set and go out for a drink with. It makes for a happy experience when you're making a movie.

What: Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonagh
When: Opens in cinemas from Thursday

- TimeOut

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