“Priest” is an absolutely riveting, made-for-BBC slice-of-life drama that could generate strong, upscale action theatrically if promoted properly. A controversial look at incest, gay love and the Catholic Church, the pic screened as a “work-in-progress” at the Edinburgh Intl. Film Festival, where it took home the Michael Powell Award as best British feature film, and film had its official world preem to a rousing reaction at the Toronto fest.
“Priest” is the first full-length feature from theater and TV vet Antonia Bird, and Bird impresses with an ability to maintain an entertaining pace while never neglecting the weighty issues raised by Liverpool writer Jimmy McGovern’s script. Bird has clearly already attracted attention in Hollywood: She is currently in post-production on the Touchstone Pictures release “Mad Love,” starring Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell.
Father Greg (Linus Roache), a young priest brimming with lofty ideals, is in for a rude shock to his value system when he arrives in a tough, inner-city Liverpool parish. First there’s his colleague Father Matthew (Tom Wilkinson), a middle-aged social activist prone to giving rabble-rousing, left-wing speeches from the pulpit. Even worse — from Father Greg’s point of view — is the fact that Father Matthew is openly breaking his vows of celibacy and living with a woman.
But the young priest’s naive sense of right-and-wrong soon begins to come apart at the seams. One night, he switches from his day-job robes into a leather jacket and heads out to a local gay bar, where he picks up a guy. His own transgression of church protocol induces a major guilt trip for Father Greg, and the ethical horizon becomes even more cloudy when a young girl tells him in the confessional that her father is sexually abusing her.
The priest feels he can’t help the girl because it would break the seal of silence of the confession. There is an electrifying scene in which Father Greg confronts the unrepentant, abusive father in the confessional. Things go from bad to worse when Father Greg’s lover, Graham (Robert Carlyle), refuses to disappear from sight, and the two conflicts come to a head in an inspirational finale that manages to criticize the hypocrisy of Catholic doctrine without resorting to a blanket condemnation of the church.
Roache will turn heads with his intense perf in a difficult role, and the rest of the cast get the job done with gritty flair. McGovern’s script is refreshingly down-to-earth, and it’s his willingness to generate laughs from even the direst situations that makes the pic so accessible.
Shot with the sort of gutsy street style associated with early Stephen Frears or recent Ken Loach, “Priest” is a fine example of how to craft an issues pic that isn’t just preaching the same old sermon.