Art & Culture

I felt an almost overwhelming moral obligation to like this film, on the basis of the cast, the subject matter and the advance reviews, but I'm sorry to say that I remained unconvinced. It's an improvement on writer/director John Michael McDonagh's previous film, The Guard, but despite its best efforts to be soulful, spiritual, funny, bleak, heartfelt and poignant, I simply didn't care one way or the other.

It's not giving anything away to say that the film opens with Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in the confessional being told by an unseen voice that he is going to be killed in a week's time. The invisible man says he was raped and abused by a priest as a child, and although the abuser is dead, he wants revenge, and how much more memorable to kill a good priest than a bad one. Father James seems to know who this man is, but we are left none the wiser, even though there are a number of candidates.

Chris O'Dowd plays the local butcher whose wife is shagging everything in sight, and more specifically Isaac De Bankole; Aidan Gillen is a deeply cynical and atheist doctor, who likes to mock the priest; while Dylan Moran is a rich landowner with all the money in the world but no sense of meaning or purpose. The one person we know it can't be is a young serial killer (played by Gleeson's son Domnhall) who is locked up. And we can also assume it's not Father James' daughter, who has come to see him after a failed suicide attempt.

A daughter, you say – how can that be? Well, Father James only came to the priesthood late in life, after his wife died. And he has also renounced alcohol, having had too much of a taste for it in the past. Whether the identity of the killer-to-be is the point of the film is another matter, since McDonagh bombards us with subsidiary characters and narrative, most of which seems to lead nowhere. There's an ageing American novelist who wants a gun; a weirdo called Milo who can't get no satisfaction; a French widow whose husband has been killed in a car crash, but whose faith is intact. As well as a fellow priest who is shallow, venal and lacking in integrity;

Wherever you look there are caricatures pretending to be characters, and the sheer volume of smart-arse verbiage (people keep making post modern comments about 'third acts' and the like) is more annoying than enjoyable. The spine of this film is clearly High Noon, dressed up as an existential thriller. Like Gary Cooper, Gleeson stands his ground in the face of the imminent threat (even making a last minute departure before changing his mind). Instead of Grace Kelly (also referenced in the film) we have Kelly Reilly as the daughter, leaving before the final showdown.

There's nothing wrong with using High Noon as your reference point, but where Fred Zinneman's masterpiece is lean, simple and direct, Calvary (the place Jesus was crucified for you non-Christians) is anything but. McDonagh has clearly never heard the expression "kill your darlings", the crucial willingness to edit, delete and simplify. More is more seems to be his motto, and it doesn't pay off.

True, Gleeson is impressive at the heart of the film, though he is required to incorporate a lot of different emotions in 100 minutes. Hs struggle to find meaning in a mad world is almost impressive, but it is undermined by the writer's desire to have it all ways. Slag off the Catholic Church, include gratuitous acts of brutality, lay on the sentimental music and the sweeping shots of the Irish mountains and the sea, have a few laughs, and on and on. It's exhausting and unproductive and unsatisfying.

I still feel guilty for not being more impressed. The rest of the world seems to be in awe. But not me, I'm afraid.