John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, the follow up to his 2011 triumph The Guard, finally made it to central Arkansas after some weeks of limited release in the United States. The film premiered at Sundance early in the year, and opened in Great Britain and Ireland in April, where it won the IFTA (Irish Film and Television Awards) for best film, best screenplay (by McDonagh), and best performance by an actor for Brendan Gleeson as the Irish priest James Lavelle. Gleeson is, as always, outstanding, as he was in The Guard and as he was in In Bruges (2008), the work of McDonagh’s talented brother Martin.
While The Guard was essentially a comedy, Calvary is a devastating movie. That’s not to say there isn’t some very dark humor in the film. But the humor is like cinematographer Larry Smith’s beautiful scenes of the bright Irish landscape and coastline: it contrasts vividly with the bleak and depressed lives of the people of Sligo, where the film is set and was filmed.
Calvary opens with a shocking scene, set in the confessional and filmed completely in closeup of Gleeson’s face. He listens to a confessant tell him that from the age of seven he had been raped on a weekly basis by his parish priest. As the confessant’s story continues, Gleeson’s face subtly displays compassion, anger and hopelessness when he learns the priest is dead and cannot be brought to justice, frustration at not being able to do anything to help the confessant and finally puzzlement and fear when the confessant declares his intent to murder a priest in revenge. Not a bad priest, though, but rather Father James himself, whom the confessant knows to be a good priest. No one would take note of the death of a bad priest, the voice says, but the death of a good priest will make people notice. The voice gives Father James one week to get his affairs in order, and says he will meet the priest at the shore on the morning of “Sunday week.” “Certainly a startling opening line,” Gleeson deadpans in response.
The point of killing the good priest—if it has a point in the mind of this very disturbed individual—seems to be that the Church as an institution is to blame, presumably for covering up the abuses and for protecting the abusive priests instead of the abused children. The Church has lost its integrity to the extent that even the innocent priests are tainted by association with it. Thus the film’s title, Calvary: the hill on which the sinless Jesus Christ died for the sins of others becomes the symbol of Father James’ predicament.
We learn fairly quickly that Father James had recognized the voice and knows which of his parishioners has threatened to kill him. He sees his bishop about the threat, but will not reveal the man’s name or call in the authorities. The bishop provides us with a view of the Church bureaucracy—concerned with the legalities of the situation and the specific rules governing the confessional, and seemingly oblivious to the human spiritual suffering involved in the situation, he never stops eating his lunch during father James’ first conversation with him.
The film follows Father James through his week, as he goes about his pastoral duties visiting, counseling and sometimes confronting his parishioners and others in the community. We are at first chiefly interested in which one of the characters has actually threatened to kill Father James. But we soon become involved in their own pained lives and wonder whether they will be able to shake off the burdens of their existence and find any kind of salvation. There is Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke), who is carrying on a fairly open affair with an Ivorian immigrant, the mechanic Simon (Isaach de Bankolé), in the face of her butcher husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd). Father James tries to discover whether it is her husband or lover who has been beating her.
The priest also tries to talk the awkward and lonely Milo (Killian Scott) out of joining the army, where he wants to be able to kill others. He visits an aging and depressed American expatriate writer (M. Emmet Walsh), who asks Father James to bring him a gun so that he can kill himself. He meets with a drunken millionaire (Dylan Moran) who wants to give money to the Church because he thinks he ought to seem to be penitent for driving people into poverty while making a fortune himself. Father James agrees with the local bankrupted pub keeper (Pat Shortt) that the bankers whose actions put Ireland into the economic depression evident in the film are guilty of sins as black as any. And he puts up with the jibes of the atheistic doctor (Aiden Gillen), at least until the doctor pushes too hard with a story of a helpless and terrified three-year old who awakes from an operation deaf, mute and blind and cannot communicate with or receive comfort from anyone—an allegory, perhaps of an abused child.
One thing that becomes clear as the week goes on is that Father James’ rural Irish parishioners, though most of them still attend mass, have nothing but contempt for the Church as a human institution that has failed to protect the weakest and neediest among them. The Church has lost its moral authority. As the pub keeper tells Father James, “your time has gone and you don’t even realize it.” But Father James does not believe this is true. He continues to perform his priestly role. He comforts those who need comforting. He confronts those who need confronting. He argues with those who he believes are wrong in their thinking. He is certainly judgmental and admits it. But he never stops trying to bring people comfort when they are in need. In one scene, he visits a convicted murderer in prison, one despised by everyone else because of the heinous nature of his crimes. While he refuses to allow the killer to excuse his deeds, or to pretend a false repentance, he defends his visit to the prison when others challenge him, saying “no one is beyond redemption.” Certainly this is a large part of his motivation in continuing to work with his parishioners, even the one who has threatened him.
Two other scenes underscore Father James’ motivations and the movie’s thematic concerns. In one, he gives last rites to a Frenchman killed in a freak accident. In an eerie parallel to his own potential situation, the Frenchman has died for no purpose, and in a discussion with the victim’s wife (Marie-Josee Croze) he mentions that such random accidents often cause survivors like herself to abandon their faith in God. The Frenchwoman replies that their faith must have been pretty shallow to begin with, and Father James agrees that most people’s faith really is simply fear of death. The priest, looking at death himself in a few days, will have his own faith tested this way.
The other scene involves Father James’ daughter, Fiona (Kelly Riley)—James had answered a call to the priesthood after his wife died. Fiona, herself a failed suicide with her own demons to grapple with, resents his absentee parenting. Father James tells her that he feels there has been “too much talk about sins” in people’s lives, and “not enough talk about virtue.” What is the greatest virtue? Forgiveness, Father James says, “has been highly underrated.”
For what was the original Calvary about if not forgiveness? That seems to be McDonagh’s underlying theme. Few reviewers of the film have made much of the headnote from Saint Augustine: “Do not despair: One of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was not.” But this dichotomy provides the structure for the entire film, as Father James visits with his parishioners, all of whom are either despairing or presumptuous, and we cannot help but consider which of the characters might be saved and which might not. Certainly Father James has his own Gethsemane moment in the film, when he seems to give up on his people and his faith, but ultimately, since the priest believes that no one is beyond redemption, he offers them all forgiveness. Who does and does not take it in the end is the legacy of the story.
McDonagh has been quoted saying that with all the global uproar over abusive Catholic clergy, he wanted to do the opposite of what was expected: He wanted to make a film about a good priest, a film about forgiveness rather than condemnation. I definitely recommend you go to the theater to see this quiet gem of a film, so that you can judge for yourself how well he has succeeded.
I’ll admit up front that when I heard about how Richard Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, had been filmed over a period of twelve years to follow the life of a fairly typical American boy, Mason (played by the remarkable Ellar Coltrane) from first grade through college orientation, with the same actor playing the boy over through the entire time, I was impressed by the audacity of the concept and the difficulty of completing such a task, but my expectations for the film itself were not high: filmed in such a way, it was likely to be virtually plotless and probably tediously overlong. After seeing the film, I can report that my expectations were largely correct. But despite those defects, the film is a triumph anyway.
Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Linklater’s film has been virtually universally lauded by film critics, and loved as well (though not quite so unanimously) by average theatergoers. While I can’t quite agree with assessments that call this the greatest coming of age story ever told, or the closest thing to real life ever put on film—that kind of hyperbole will fade once we get a little distance from the shiny moment of the film’s bursting upon the scene—I will agree that it is a triumph of realism and an astounding tour de force. It’s not quite that nothing like it has ever been done before: Linklater’s own previous trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), which follows a couple through their initial love affair through marriage and the disintegration of marriage, using the same actors and a real-life space of some nine years between each film, are a step in the direction of Boyhood. Other film projects, like Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (a documentary looking at five years in the lives of two African-American high school basketball players) and the British “Up” Series (in which director Michael Apted followed the lives of fourteen British children from 1964 until 2013, catching up with them every seven years) must certainly have influenced Linklater’s vision in this film.
Boyhood, though, is an even bolder concept than these previous films, since, as a fictional story, it must hang together in ways that a documentary need not. There must be a script, and ultimately one that shows the arc of a story In the end that story is extremely loose, but there is the arc of Mason’s coming of age, his up-and-down relationships with his sometimes absent father, his sometimes ineffectual mother, and a duet of unsavory stepfathers; as well as the ups and downs of his own love life, which seems to be looking up somewhat in the end. It’s something of a miracle of scripting—and even more so of editing—that there is any coherence at all to the plot.
And what an act of faith it must have been for the actors to sign on for a twelve-year project. Some characters come in and out of the story, but the four lead actors—Coltain, Ethan Hawke (as Mason’s father, Mason Sr.), Patricia Arquette (as Mason’s mother Olivia) and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei (as Mason’s older sister Samantha)—made a commitment in 2002 to devote time to this project on an annual basis until 2013, an unheard of dedication in so ephemeral a business as filmmaking. And watching these actors is one of the great delights of this film Linklater was extremely lucky in the children he chose in 2002: the 7-year-old Coltrane seems to have been a natural talent, and in the unaffected genuineness of his performance through the years he is able to avoid the cloyingly obnoxious artificiality that develops in many child actors. As for Linklater’s daughter, the director may be accused of a kind of nepotism in putting her in the film, but in fact it was quite shrewd to use a child actress over whom he knew he would have some sway for the twelve years of the project. In fact the younger Linklater is as natural and unaffected, and convincing, as Coltrane is. Hawke, of course, is used to working with Linklater, having starred in the Before… series, and while at times he seems to be reprising his character from those films, he matures in a way that is in perfect harmony with this character’s maturing in the film over the twelve-year period, and is convincing and memorable in the role.
But for my money the most fascinating performance was turned in by Arquette. In full disclosure, I must admit that I have never been impressed by Patricia Arquette as an actress and in the first scenes of the film I felt that we were simply getting a reprise of her incredibly wooden performance in her long-running television series Medium. But as the film progressed, her performance became more nuanced, she showed more genuine emotion and more subtle understanding of her character. It may be, of course, that that development was planned from the beginning, either by Linklater or Arquette; on the other hand, it may be that the twelve years of filming actually records a growth in Arquette’s own range as an actress.
But where Boyhood shines particularly is in its realism. Linklater tends to be something of a classicist: his Before films, for example seem very deliberately to follow the classical Aristotelian unities of time, place and action. That is, the time covered in the films is close to the actually running time of the film, or at least is concluded within twenty-four hours. There is a single plot—the conflict between the two main characters—and everything takes place in a single location. For classical writers, adherence to these unities enhanced the verisimilitude, i.e., the appearance of truth, of the drama. In Boyhood, the spirit of the unities seems behind the decision to keep the same actors in their roles over a twelve-year storyline. The movie displays a verisimilitude in that the actors age naturally in front of us: They do not need makeup or special effects, and there is no need to replace the children with different actors and ask the audience to suspend their disbelief and pretend that, as in Star Wars, for instance, Hayden Christensen is a more grown-up Jake Lloyd—or for that matter that James Earl Jones is a more seasoned Hayden Christensen.
Linklater is also influenced by the concept of the “slice of life” realism that developed among French naturalist playwrights more than a century ago, but that resurfaced to some extent in some television plays of the 1950s. Usually the term suggests a somewhat arbitrary depiction of events in a central character’s life, lacking traditionally recognizable conflict, plot and resolution. Thus the perceived weaknesses of the film are the natural byproduct of its style and genre. Even some of the connections that occur in the movie seem completely arbitrary: At one point, for instance, a gardener whom Olivia has told to go to college reappears years later as assistant manager of a restaurant and thanks her for giving him the advice. At the same time, details that we long to have resolved are left hanging at the end of the movie: Olivia takes her children away from an abusive stepfather, but has to leave the man’s own two children from a previous marriage in the home. We never discover the fate of those children. But this kind of arbitrariness, it must be admitted, is precisely the way life is. So lifelike is this film that in one scene, when one of the characters asked for a stick of gum, my wife reached for her purse.
This is a film that will astound you, more for the boldness of its concept and the deftness of its execution than for any particularly moving or gripping scenes. It is a film more for the head than the heart, and will certainly go down as one of the great achievements in filmmaking, though I can’t quite concur that it will be remembered as one of the greatest films of all time. But it’s a film you really ought to see, because it’s what everybody will be talking about all year long.
Two things you can put your money on every summer: the Cubs will not make it to the World Series and Woody Allen will release another movie. As he has every year since Annie Hall in 1977, the 78-year-old Allen has provided us with another film—his 44th—to balance out the superheroes, sequels, and assorted “blockbuster” trivialities that light up screens in the overcooled movie houses of July and August. And two things you can count on from a Woody Allen film: the characters will speak actual lines of dialogue, as opposed to one-liners that occasionally interrupt the 3D special effects and interminable battle scenes of even the best of summer action films (i.e. Guardians of the Galaxy); and that you will actually be able to hear and understand that dialogue, because it’s not whispered and mumbled by shadowy figures in darkened landscapes that you can’t see. But maybe I’m just showing my age.
But more than this, Allen’s dialogue also tends to be about ideas, not simply plot points, and even though those ideas are generally ones that Allen has been obsessed with for 45 years, as they are in his latest feature Magic in the Moonlight—specifically, the question of whether the universe consists solely of physical phenomena and existence is therefore meaningless, or whether there is a realm of the spiritual that underscores this veil of tears with metaphysical significance—they are questions that few other filmmakers are asking.
Magic in the Moonlight does not reach the heights of last year’s splendid Blue Jasmine. As a romantic and nostalgic European romp it does not have the charm of Midnight in Paris. And it is far too light to carry the existential angst of Match Point. But if we resist the temptation to compare it to Allen’s own triumphs, it stands up pretty well as an entertaining and thought-provoking way to spend a summer afternoon. Beginning in Berlin in 1928, the film introduces the world-renowned conjurer Wei Ling Soo, who, we discover backstage, is the stage persona of the Englishman Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), He is prevailed upon by his longtime friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to come to the Côte d’Azur in southern France to help him expose the beautiful young psychic Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who, with the backing of her greedy mother (played by Marcia Gay Harden, who, curiously, has almost nothing to do in the movie), is attempting to scam a rich American widow, Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver) who longs to communicate with her dead husband. Burkan and Firth stay at the Catledge’s villa, where young Brice Catledge (Hamish Linklater), an inconsequential ukulele-playing twit—but a rich one—complicates matters by proposing to the winsome clairvoyant. Stanley, who prides himself on his rationality to the point of egotism, snobbishness, and blatant rudeness, and who takes great pleasure in discrediting phony spiritualists, is determined to expose Sophie for the charlatan she is.
Thus a dichotomy is set up between the rational and skeptical on the one hand and the emotional and romantic on the other; between male intellectualism and female emotionalism; between the establishment personified by the rational Stanley and the new society represented by the spiritual Sophie. Once these poles are established, it is fairly easy to predict the outcome. This is, after all, a romantic comedy, and the two people who start off hating one another always end up together. But if the plot is predictable, that is not necessarily a flaw: the plot deals with archetypal forms and patterns, and in large part that is what makes it appealing. Besides, the final twist provides enough of a surprise to please most viewers, if they don’t see it coming in quite that way.
No, what I object to most in the film is the characterization of Stanley and Sophie. Stone is perfectly lovely and appropriately sassy regarding her occupation while at the same time ingénue-like when it comes to matters of the heart, but she’s somewhat flat and has little depth. Allen, known for eliciting brilliant performances from his lead actresses (like Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning turn in Blue Jasmine) has given us more of a simple cliché in Sophie. As for Firth, I found his character disappointingly unlikeable. He has the kind of bullying, rational egotism of a Henry Higgins, but Rex Harrison was so much more likeable, perhaps because he was more humorous and elicited more sympathy in his longing for Eliza, than Firth is able to muster in this film. Firth’s character is more deliberately insulting and hurtful, and his conversion, though hinted at once or twice, is much more abrupt and seemingly unmotivated, so that I was taken aback by its clumsiness. I don’t know whether it was Firth’s acting (he is one of our finest actors, but his performance here will not soon make anyone forget his exemplary turn in The King’s Speech or his brilliant tour de force earlier this year in The Railway Man) or Allen’s script—perhaps a combination of the two—but I never understood why Stanley was the kind of person he was, or why he was so susceptible to change on what was, when one consider it, rather flimsy data: there is a scene between Firth and Stone in a restaurant midway through the film, in which she astounds him by revealing things about him that, presumably, she could not possibly have known. I had the urge to shout out to him “have her tell you something about that woman sitting at the next table! Somebody she could not possibly know!” Maybe that’s just me, but it did seem that this extreme rationalist might have thought to make such a demand.
The other problem with the film is this: if the contest is between skepticism and faith, then the odds are not fair. Stanley, despite his obnoxious personality, may be said to fairly represent skepticism, but Sophie, the spiritualist, is a kind of straw man as a representative of faith. As a medium and conductor of séances, it is clear from the beginning that she is a fake, because that is simply what such spiritualists are, whether Stanley can find the way to unmask her or not. So it is not a true contest.
What mitigates this problem, however, is Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa, played by the superb Eileen Atkins (veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company but seen in films like Last Chance Harvey, Cold Mountain and Gosford Park). Vanessa, whose own life has been shaped by romance and whose attitude toward Stanley’s brittle rationalism is good-natured irony, is a more subtle and substantial spokesperson for the romantic position than Sophie is, and she advocates that position with a much lighter touch. The scenes with Atkins light up the film, and the extensive penultimate scene between her and Firth, in which she maneuvers the blustering Stanley into confronting his own real emotions, is the best scene in the film, and the one in which Firth, too, is at his best.
The striking scenery of the south of France is beautifully shot in 35 mm by Darius Khondji, who also was director of photography for Midnight in Paris. And in contrast to the pulsating contemporary white noise that hip-hops its way through most contemporary movies (my age again), this film’s wonderful score alternates classical music from Beethoven, Ravel and Dvořák with period pop songs like “You do Something to Me” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (the latter performed in a quirky scene with ukulele accompaniment by Linklater), in a way that reflects the serious and rational on the one hand and the silly and emotional on the other.
There are some things about the film that will inevitably provoke some viewers to make connections with Allen’s personal life: It is well known that he began his show business career as a magician before turning to comedy, and his own views about the mystical are no secret, so that reviewers will inevitably see Stanley as a clear, if unflattering, projection of himself. And, of course, the nearly 30-year age difference between Firth and Stone—an obvious incongruity never once alluded to by any character in the film—is notable. But if he is the archetypal representation of rational age and she of passionate youth, then their ages may be fitting. In any case, the film should stand on its own without viewers trying to make it into fictionalized autobiography. In the end, romance does win out in the film, as it must in a comedy. The world may still be ultimately meaningless when it comes to metaphysical questions, but love can give individual lives meaning. And that is worth hearing. You may not like everything about this film, but it is still better than the vast majority of what is out there in the theaters.