There’s a story about Brendan Gleeson meeting unsuccessfully with a Hollywood agent to discuss furthering his acting career overseas. This was in the mid-Nineties, and until then Gleeson had largely worked in television, mostly in his native Ireland, with only a handful of minor film roles to his credit. Admittedly, Gleeson had come late to acting: he’d been a secondary school teacher in Dublin before taking up acting full time in 1991 and was now in his early forties. Gleeson recounted the meeting to The Independent’s Ryan Gilbey in 2001, admitting that the agent passed, telling the actor he was “too old and too ugly.”
It’s a story you’d like to imagine Gleeson now tells with a degree of pleasure. After all, he has gone from being a salty, supporting presence in films like 28 Days Later, Gangs Of New York, Cold Mountain and the Harry Potter series to enjoy top billing in a handful of smaller but nonetheless significant films. The first indication of his leading man status came when he played prominent Dublin crime boss Martin Cahill in John Boorman’s boisterous 1998 caper, The General. It made full use of Gleeson’s teddy-bear build and doughy face, his mischievous, almost anarchic temperament that seemed capable of both big-hearted warmth and unflinching violence. The kind of man you could happily spend several hours with in the pub, but whom you would most certainly not wish to cross under any circumstances. Incredibly, it was a decade before Gleeson got another lead role – as a tremendous double act with Colin Farrell in playwright Martin McDonagh’s comedy noir, In Bruges. Gleeson and Farrell played hitmen ordered to lie low in Belgium: Gleeson a man of sombre decency next to Farrell’s none-too-bright big kid.
But it’s Gleeson’s relationship with McDonagh’s brother, John that continues to prove creatively profitable. First in The Guard (2011) and now with Calvary, McDonagh and Gleeson have set about exploring the rich landscape of Ireland and the idiosyncratic characters one might encounter there. The events of The Guard took place in Galway while the setting for Calvary is a village close to Sligo. The population are drug addicts, nymphomaniacs, arsonists and wife-beaters, going about their business untroubled by discretion or morality. In the middle of this is Gleeson’s father James, the only notionally ‘good’ man for miles around, who is marked for death by one his parishioners: “There’s no point in killing a bad priest. I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent.” What ensues is a kind of whodunit as father James traverses his parish, and we meet the potential suspects – including Dylan Moran’s alcoholic country squire, Aiden Gillen’s embittered doctor and Chris O’Dowd’s cuckolded butcher. Father James knows them all, arguably better than they know themselves: “You’re too smart for this parish,” he is told. As in any work of fiction set in rural Ireland that concerns itself with ecumenical matters, there is a pleasing Father Ted reference in the form of actor Pat Shortt, who plays a publican here but is better known for his sterling work as Craggy Island’s unibrowed village idiot Tom.
McDonagh’s script – a more substantial and mature piece than The Guard – is preoccupied with Catholicism, its impact or its absence. We learn early on that the would-be killer was abused as an alter boy and is seeking revenge, father James’ parishioners are comprehensively indifferent to the Church (and lack any kind of moral compass), while the old priest himself retains a quiet dignity throughout. Father James is a character of extraordinary grace and pragmatism. Grizzled, looking uncannily like Orson Welles at times, he moves through emotional beats spanning exasperation to resignation. It is a rich and believable performance from Gleeson who, at 58, appears to be doing the best work of his late-flowering career.
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CALVARY OPENS IN THE UK ON APRIL 11