Dying for the sins of others is one of Catholicism’s darkest obsessions. Father Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), pastor to his flock in rural Ireland, is taken aback when a penitent on the other side of the grille tells him of the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a priest.
As retribution, he intends to kill Lavelle in a week’s time. Lavelle has recognised the voice of his would-be executioner and it is his acceptance of the situation and his preparation for that moment of truth on a windswept beach that propels the narrative.
It is a stern and laughless landscape in which writer-director John Michael McDonagh (responsible also for the screenplay of Ned Kelly – another martyr?) has set his drama. It seems isolated from the rest of the world, thus becoming a microcosm of western society in general, and its small coastal township is peopled by characters who, through their eccentricities, flaws and foibles, tend occasionally to have the story teetering on the borderline of TV’s Midsomer Murders – the local rent-boy (Owen Sharpe) is needlessly overdone. But the mystery of ‘who will it be?’ keeps you entwined, as does Lavelle’s spiritual journey as his faith is tested to near breaking point. Building with McDonagh on what they achieved together in The Guard, it is a fabulous performance from Gleeson. Deeply layered and robust, he nonetheless portrays a man who, you suspect, might be about to crack like an eggshell.
The question of how any person, least of all one declaring to have a vocation, could sustain his integrity and maintain an allegiance to an organisation – the church – that has been so thoroughly and publicly discredited in recent times for turning a blind eye.