The Black Comedy is a fine art that fuses serious subject matter with humour. This ability to make you laugh at the sinister is one of the most compelling techniques in a film-maker’s toolbox of wonderment. And there’s nothing more British.
While Hollywood engaged in the airy Golden years of the 40s, Ealing Studios were tackling taboo with such dark comedies as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). This story, in which Alec Guinness plays EIGHT roles, follows the distant relative of a Duke’s effort to inherit the title by killing everyone above him in the family tree. This hilarious mutation of murder into comedy helped pave Britain’s irreverent comedic tradition that John Michael McDonagh is flying the flag for.
Brendan Gleeson stars in Calvary – a dark comedy about a good priest who faces death threats from a man raped by a bad priest in his childhood. The sombre and topical undercurrent will make you think, but the delivery will make you laugh. Laurence Phelan, of the Independent, said that the ‘religious comedy is just heavenly’, as he praises the ‘fabulous bit of writing with the tidy structure and mythical resonance of a passion play’.
The magic in conjuring humour in such a sensitive field as religion is a diamond formula if done well. McDonagh’s partnership with Gleeson has had great results before in The Guard (2011), and this match may precipitate a new high for British black comedy.
His brother, Martin McDonagh, dabbles in the same dark art. He directed the excellent In Bruges (2008) – a comedy of errors starring Colin Farrell and, once again, Brendan Gleeson – and Seven Psychopaths (2012) – a grisly gangster comedy with Woody Harrelson and Farrell.
As the US ease in front of the UK in the dark comedy race with the stellar work of Alexander Payne, Todd Solondz and The Coens, this pair are making up much-needed ground.
Calvary, a dose of hard-hitting hilarity, will launch at the Genesis Cinema this Friday (18th April). Book your tickets at www.genesiscinema.co.uk.