Movie of the Week: Priest (1994)

Antonia Bird directs Linus Roach, Tom Wilkinson and Cathy Tyson in this controversial drama about a priest struggling with the real world problems of working class Liverpool and his own forbidden desires.

An infamous film in its day as it depicted, sympathetically and explicitly, a gay priest engaging in a loving relationship. Roach’s straight-laced and conservative parish newcomer’s travails of having to work through his feelings and beliefs forms the backbone of the film. Yet the drama takes in a lot more scope than what the headlines focussed on. It is an exploration of the ethical and philosophical problems of faith, the hypocrisy of certain tenets and the pull of dogma over humanity. Jimmy McGovern’s script scrabbles at the four or five powerful issues, big nasty dilemmas that crossover with each other. The sacrifices and compromises men of belief must make when faced with harmful realities and their own natural needs is the grand theme. McGovern offers no easy answers, approaching the conflicts with passion and an erudite earthiness. For all its inherent heaviness, Priest is a funny and very involving drama. I kinda prefer McGovern’s approach to the working class over Ken Loach’s and certainly over Mike Leigh’s. You get the feeling McGovern wants to celebrate us for what we are, approach our flawed, dark sides and hypocrisies unvarnished and know that pity only exacerbates our problems. I like his poetic anger and his fight and his superior understanding over Leigh’s caricatures. They feel more approachable than Loach’s binary bureaucrats and worthy martyrs. Which is ironic given the subject matter here. Shout out to the excellent Antonia Bird too, a female director who made a couple of great movies in the 1990s – her Face is also due a re-evaluation. Adept at marshalling rich performances from her British casts and capturing the harshness and silliness of urban life. There are a few moments of disruptive strangeness that elevate Priest from merely being a piece of celluloid agitprop. A wild lad chases some seagulls, a strict vegan housekeeper delivers a cold welcome. Small respites of magic, captured perfectly. Someone should give her a decent budget to make this kind of firey, involving, mature work again.

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