Happy Birthday, Brendan Gleeson! This in demand, Irish-born actor turns 65 on March 29, so this is the perfect time to celebrate his work with a Gleeson triple feature. Gleeson has starred in lots of big movies since his film career began in 1990, including “Braveheart” (1995), “Michael Collins” (1996), “28 Days Later…” (2002), “Gangs of New York” (2002), the “Harry Potter” series, and “Suffragette” (2015).
His impressive resume offers countless choices to highlight, but let’s look at a film from director Michael McDonagh and two more from his director-brother John Michael McDonagh.
According to IMDB.com, Gleeson once said, “I don’t plan in terms of career ambitions. The only career ambition I have is to work with people who are going to bring you up and elevate your performance.”
No question, Gleeson has reached his career aspirations, and along the way, he’s clearly performed some elevation of his own.
Ken, “In Bruges” (2008) – If you’ve never heard of Bruges, Belgium, writer/director Michael McDonagh undoubtedly ensures that it is seared into your memory after watching his very dark comedy “In Bruges”. This charming, canal-based city – which is only a 114 km drive from Calais, the Channel Tunnel’s French endpoint – is a temporary hiding place for Londoners Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Gleeson). These hitmen found themselves in a shifty off-screen conundrum in the UK and need to lay low for a while, until their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) phones with instructions. Patience isn’t Ray’s strongest suit, and he hates being stuck in Bruges, but Ken – regardless of his chosen profession – is a glass-half-full human being and wishes to make the best of their stationary situation. In addition to Ray, information booths and travel maps become his trusted companions, as this older, wiser of the two embraces the moment.
The script dives into some downright hilarious, whip-smart banter between the leads and the arriving-and-departing, eccentric supporting players, but McDonagh’s picture – like “Seven Psychopaths” (2012) and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017) – can get bloody in a hurry. Consider yourself warned, but also know that Farrell won the 2009 Golden Globe Best Actor (Comedy or Musical) award, and Gleeson was nominated in the same category as well. The Academy also awarded McDonagh with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination, which just goes to show that Ken’s well-placed, good-natured outlook on Bruges must be apropos. (3.5/4 stars)
Police Sergeant Gerry Boyle, “The Guard” (2011) – “I can’t tell if you’re really m*****-f****** dumb or really m*****-f****** smart,” FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) says to Police Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Gleeson).
Yes, perceptions of Sergeant Boyle’s intelligence may vary, but there’s no doubt about Gleeson’s performance in writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s buddy-cop comedy. He’s really terrific here, and the Hollywood Foreign Press thought so too, as Gleeson earned a 2012 Best Actor (Comedy or Musical) Golden Globe nomination.
Well, after years and years with the Irish Garda Siochana police service, Boyle has grown comfortable and indifferent about his job. He’s certainly competent, but police life – for him – is more matter-of-fact, because this 50-something bachelor is more interested in occasional bouts of mischief and caring for his sick mom (Fionnula Flanagan), not at the same time, of course. His small-town world suddenly hits big city problems though, as a 500 million euro drug deal brews close by, so Everett partners with him. McDonagh plays with an Irish vs. American culture clash, as Boyle schools Everett with the West Region of Ireland’s intricacies, as the fish-out-of-water FBI agent struggles to catch up. Gleeson and Cheadle have enjoyable, comedic chemistry, and “The Guard” is more about their relationship, not the looming criminal transaction. In fact, the bad guys barely register any attention, but no matter, because Gleeson’s droll character study of a sarcastic, overly frank lawman should absolutely capture yours. (3.5/4 stars)
Father James, “Calvary” (2014) – Father James (Gleeson) is a good and decent priest, but despite his earnest nature, he’s unfortunately living under extreme duress in a small seaside Irish community. Although scenic beauty surrounds him at every winding, country-road turn, many of the townspeople spew ugly hostility. The biggest danger, however, comes from a man who enters his confessional and threatens to kill him in one week’s time. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh weaves a dark whodunit that really plays like an old western, as it methodically marches towards Father James’ date with (his possible) destiny.
Although released in 2014, “Calvary” was filmed in 2012 and therefore, made during – arguably – the lowest opinion of the Catholic Church – in recent memory – due to the well-documented sex abuse crisis. The unpopular Pope Benedict was still in power, so disdain for the institution weighs heavily on the narrative. It dominates it, as the reflection of the times – in a way – reverses on-screen roles. The aforementioned townsfolk lost faith and lost their moral direction, while Father James stands tall with altruism and grace. The notable supporting actors – including Aidan Gillen, Chris O’Dowd and M. Emmet Walsh (yes, that M. Emmet Walsh) – stand tall too and cradle Gleeson’s deep, introspective performance, and Kelly Reilly especially leaves a lasting mark as Father James’ daughter in one of the very best films of 2014. (4/4 stars)