Calvary is an Irish comedy-drama film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, starring Brendan Gleeson as Father James, a Catholic priest at a church in rural County Sligo. When Father James’s life is threatened during confession by an anonymous parishioner who claims he suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a now-deceased former priest, he uses what he believes will be the final week of his life to right old wrongs and bury long-standing feuds involving a bitter millionaire (Dylan Moran), a wife-beating local business owner (Chris O’Dowd), a disaffected teenager (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s real life son), an atheist doctor (Game of Thrones star Aidan Gillen), and his estranged daughter from his pre-priesthood days (Kelly Reilly). It’s a deep, thoughtful, moving film, with a rich vein of black, black humor running through it, and with Gleeson’s lead performance being especially critically acclaimed.
The music for Calvary is by Irish composer Patrick Cassidy, who grew up speaking Gaelic, and is widely considered to be one of Ireland’s finest contemporary classical composers, but is best known to film music fans for the spectacular aria “Vide Cor Meum”, which he wrote for the Hans Zimmer-scored Hannibal in 2001. As one might expect, based on the quality of that piece, the score for Calvary is supremely beautiful. It dwells in that wonderful place between reverential, liturgical church music and potent cinematic drama scoring, and adds a real sense of weight, depth, and importance to Father James’s story.
The score is based around three main themes: the Calvary theme, which is a leitmotif for Father James and ties the score together; the Ben Bulben theme, which represents the Irish location of the film’s action, and is named after a table mountain in County Sligo which is famous in Irish mythology and poetry; and Veronica’s theme, which is meant to represent faith and spirituality, and is named for the abused wife of one of Father Jack’s congregation.
The Calvary theme, the most haunting and evocative of the three themes, features Odhran O’Casaide’s lovely violin textures, and occurs frequently in the score, most notably in the two stunning “Na mBeannaíochtaí” beatitudes pieces which bookend the score, and in other cues such as ‘The Beach”. The theme unfolds slowly, gracefully, with a languid pace and a thoughtful aspect, and allows both the gravitas of the situation and the decency of Father James to emerge simultaneously. The “Ben Bulben” theme is distinctly darker and more oppressive, although the voice-and-harp harmonies in the second half of the theme are spine-tingling, while “Veronica” features extended performances by Michael Edwards’s piano and Michael Eskin’s whistle in a piece which is much more rooted in sadness and solitude.
Voices also play a large part in the score. Popular Irish vocalist Iarla O’Lionáird from the Afro Celt Sound System, who himself wrote the well-received score for the film I Could Read the Sky in 2000, provides the sublime, haunting Gaelic-language textures in both the Beatitudes cues and in “Say Your Prayers”, while Lisbeth Scott sound-alike Aya Peard lends her gorgeous, earthy tones to the aforementioned “Ben Bulben”, “Memories Fade”, “Fiona Awakens” and “Third Act Revelation”. Later, massed voices, soft and solemn, feature in the beautiful “Teresa” and “But I Will Go On”, although it’s unclear whether this is a live choir or high quality samples.
Other than the Gaelic lyrics O’Lionáird sings, it’s interesting to note that Cassidy completely eschews the stereotypical fashions of what most people think Irish music sounds like. There are no uilleann pipes, no bodhrán drums, and nary a pennywhistle to be found – as Cassidy explains, the drama and circumstances of the film are universal, whereas the Irish locale is generally incidental to the unfolding story, and as such he did not want to drown the score in fiddle-de-dee silliness. While this approach is admirable and wholly understandable, I can nevertheless anticipate a little disappointment from some listeners who hear ‘Irish movie’ and ‘film score’, and think they know what they’re going to get.
One other slight drawback to the score is the lack of any real development in the music, and the almost complete absence of variation. With the exception of “Your Church is On Fire”, which is the closest the score gets to having an action cue, almost every other cue is the same: slow, soft, reverent, beautifully structured and featuring gorgeous harmonies and textures, but likely to lull the unwary into a calm, peaceful sleep.
I personally found Calvary to be an intoxicating journey into the spiritual and personal heart of a man in turmoil. The two sublime Beatitudes cues are worth the price of the album alone, as is the associated Calvary theme, but I fear that anyone who requires more energy or action to their film scores are likely to find it a little drab and, dare I say it, boring.