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Unmissable 5 Stars
Excellent 4 Stars
Good 3 Stars
Poor 2 Stars
Tragic 1 Star

Brendan Gleeson
Kelly Reilly
Dylan Moran
Chris O’Dowd.
John Michael McDonagh.
John Michael McDonagh.
Running Time
101 minutes

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Father Dead

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Sligo, Ireland. In the confessional, Father James (Gleeson) learns that one of his congregation, who was abused by another priest, intends to kill him in a week’s time. The priest is visited by his daughter (Reilly), who has recently attempted suicide, and deals with a range of locals who have differing reasons to hate the Catholic Church.


With The Guard, writer-director John Michael McDonagh and character actor-star Brendan Gleeson created a classic Irish comedy-drama. This thematic follow-up darkens the tone considerably. As before, there’s a sense that McDonagh’s twin inspirations are Father Ted and Abel Ferrara, but here the anguish is more raw and traditional whimsy struggles to survive in a country many feel has been literally and figuratively raped by generations of bad priests and now further abused by unethical financiers and corrupt politicians. There are sweet and funny moments, but an undercurrent of anger storms throughout. Quirky character business often segues into spiritually terrifying material. Every pub debate gets vicious and the weather is always foul.

Brendan Gleeson’s Father James is a widower who has come to the church late in life, at what we see is a cost to his grown-up daughter (Kelly Reilly). A former heavy drinker and brawler, he struggles with his own demons even as he takes the brunt of everyone else’s wrath. The stunning confessional scene which begins the film introduces a self-aware streak as Father James admits that the unrepentant penitent’s attention-getting line (“I was seven years old when I first tasted semen”) is a hell of an opening. Though it’s a mystery to the audience which of James’ circle of acquaintances is threatening him, he confides early on that he thinks he knows his would-be killer’s identity. However, the general air of hostility and an escalating campaign against the institution of the church and the person of the priest suggests James isn’t being targeted simply by one of his parishioners. The character eventually outed as the vengeance-seeking abuse victim (it’ll be less of a mystery when next year’s supporting actor nominations are announced) denies one specific act of terror, leaving a talking-point puzzle destined to be an IMDb message-board thread without end.

As in The Guard, McDonagh’s writing is so strong that actors who usually star are willing to sign on for only a couple of scenes or even a few smart lines. This is even more Gleeson’s film, but is studded with superb work from Reilly as the damaged yet loyal daughter, Aidan Gillen as a venomous atheist coroner (his nastiest speech will haunt you), Chris O’Dowd as a butcher relieved that his vamp wife has taken up with a mechanic, Dylan Moran as a self-hating banker and M. Emmet Walsh as a grumbling old writer. Gleeson’s priest shambles from scene to scene, taking a mental beating as he tries to live up to an ideal no-one else — least of all his trendy new church colleagues — believes in anymore. In a fine point of doctrine, his refusal to bring the authorities in or duck out of a date with a would-be killer could even be classed as a passive suicide, though he procures a gun which figures in several sub-plot threads.

It’s more uncomfortable than The Guard, and you probably need to be an Irish Catholic to fully engage with its arguments. However, even in its bleakest moments, it retains a comic, pointed touch.

On the strength of only two films, McDonagh and Gleeson are a director/star team on a par with Ford/Wayne, Fellini/Mastroianni or Scorsese/De Niro. Calvary is gripping, moving, funny and troubling, down to an uncompromising yet uncynical finish.

Reviewed by Kim Newman

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Your Reviews

Average user rating for Calvary
Empire Star Rating

High Noon in Sligo

I thought Calvary an excellent piece of film making with a fine performance from Brendan Gleeson again. It certainly doesn't shy away from the genuine horrors of the Church, but at the same time it is brave enough to portray Gleeson's Priest as a genuinely sympathetic hero. He's certainly not perfect, but then again who is ? In my opinion some of the criticism of McDonough's earlier film the Guard, in particular from fellow Irish people, was far too harsh regarding the portrayal of contempora... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Uncle_Ethan at 20:47, 10 August 2014 | Report This Post


I finally got around to seeing this tonight and what can I say, only I have to agree with Coyleone - it was a stunning piece of work. I liked The Guard, but thought it was perhaps over-praised, but this was on another level, and yes very bleak at times. Some people seem to find the transitions from tragedy/horror to humour to be awkward or strange but I found them perfect. Maybe, as an Irishman, I'm just in tune with this sort of gallows humour more than some. The most fundamental t... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by scary_ice at 01:29, 01 May 2014 | Report This Post

Harsh, but fair.

As much as I admire what the film sets out to do (and undoubtedly achieves), I'd be hard pushed to say I enjoyed it. Then again, I'm not entirely sure I was supposed to. A film about faith, forgiveness and redemption, and not only in a religious sense, Calvary shows us Craggy Island filtered through the lens of bitterness, regret, yet ultimately tranquility. Don't hate the game, hate the players. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by TheMightyBlackout at 22:43, 14 April 2014 | Report This Post

Completely agree.

Loved it from start to finish. Was enthralled. If only Empire gave 6th stars for great beards. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by tysmuse at 20:35, 14 April 2014 | Report This Post

Another brilliant effort.

An affecting and d occasionally funny drama with a soulful lead performance. Both myself and the Mrs were deeply moved by it. Oh and I would give The Guard 5 stars...that's who. The noughties Big Lebowski. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by spideed2 at 12:57, 14 April 2014 | Report This Post

This is a really great film

and it's about serious and difficult things which some people will probably not want to think about ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Mpyrereader at 11:37, 14 April 2014 | Report This Post

This is a really great film

and it's about serious and difficult things which some people will probably not want to think about ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Mpyrereader at 11:37, 14 April 2014 | Report This Post

Unreliable reviews yet again

X5 stars - more like x2 - empire reviews used to be so reliable ... More

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Posted by Kenmitchell23 at 21:42, 13 April 2014 | Report This Post

RE: Very good movie

This film was astonishing. It's from the director of The Guard which I liked a lot, but this is on another level dramatically and thematically. This is more complex and much more mature, but it still has the funny bone of the previous film, but it's definitely not a comedy like that film was, so don't go in expecting the same amount of laughs here, because this is more concerned with dealing with weighty themes but it does it in a completely un-pretentious way. Brendan Gleeson stars again ... More

Posted by Coyleone at 20:26, 13 April 2014 | Report This Post

Very good movie

Nothing more, nothing less. Is Mr. Newman taking the piss by comparing this to legendary director/actor collaborations? ... More

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Posted by Jasper_29 at 13:53, 10 April 2014 | Report This Post

The Guard was indeed overrated, but this one does look like it has more going for it than Irish as racist, obnoxious buffoon shtick. ... More

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Posted by MyNameIsNotBruce at 13:59, 09 April 2014 | Report This Post

Once bitten . . .

Kim Newman gave The Guard a preposterous 5 star review too, something that nobody I've met who has seen The Guard would agree with. A massive piece of overhyping. So to see Calvary given the same worship by the same reviewer is a less than ringing endorsement. Why wasn't another reviewer given Calvary? ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Sambora at 14:06, 08 April 2014 | Report This Post

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