Director: Antonia Bird
Stars: Linus Roache, Tom Wilkinson, Cathy Tyson, Robert Carlylse
Priest explores what I imagine must be the fascinatingly complicated world of gay Catholic priests in the most boring, lame way imaginable. In place of an exploration of the labyrinthine forces that simultaneously fuse and separate organised homosexuality & organised religion is a predigested group hug about intolerance and “homophobia”. Just to make sure viewers are left with no doubt that straight people are just as bad as gay people — what an intelligent, productive message — a sexually abused young girl, helpless and teary, is thrown into the centre of the action. A top cast - many of whom went on to make the excellent The Full Monty - is also wasted, and the earnest, self-important tone of the film cancels out any trace of much-needed humour, irony or surprise.
Linus Roache plays the young Father Greg Pilkington, new to a working class diocese and loaded up with fresh ideas and inner conflict. He boards with Father Matthew Thomas (Tom Wilkinson) and housekeeper/Father Thomas’ secret lover, Maria (Cathy Tyson). Local girl Lisa (Christine Tremarco) is being molested by her father (Robert Pugh) but since Father Pilkington hears all about it in the confessional, he’s unable to alert the authorities, or even Lisa’s mother.
He has more trouble on his plate when he cycles into the local gay bar one night and meets Graham (Robert Carlyle) who he tries to resist, but quickly falls in love with. Busted making out in their car, Father Pilkington and Graham are arrested. The case makes the front pages of all the tabloids and – oh God! – you can imagine the reaction of the Bishop and the parishioners.
But to ensure our support, director Antonia Bird and writer Jimmy McGovern have aimed their cannons directly at the evil forces of the anti-gay armies with young Lisa and her creepy, irredeemable (heterosexual) father cemented firmly into the firing line. Several scenes labour the point that Father Thomas’ illicit relationship with Maria is accepted by Church and town because they’re opposite-sex lovers. How can the straight parishioners cast a stone against gay Father Pilkington when they – and even other pastors - are soaked in sin? Oh, the hypocrisy of it all!
How dumb, how insufficient for a pro-gay film to suggest that intolerance of homosexuals is wrong, since at least gay don’t abuse their daughters, like some heterosexuals do. At least delve into how gays become the spittoons for some people’s generalised guilt about their own or their peers’ sexual transgressions? At least do something - anything?
So, the second half of the film has nothing to do but collapse into doleful, angst ridden moments in the empty church at night (Father Pilkington asks of a statue of Christ “what would you do if you were here?”, “What do you want of me” and so on). Out on the street, Lisa slouches around dutifully holding her town-favourite father’s despicable hand.
Later scenes, involving Father Pilkington’s unsuccessful return to the pulpit, demonstrate that some things just don’t gel with the job of preacher. Homosexuality is, for better or for worse – one of them. The film can’t grapple with this idea because it’s too busy grinding its “let he who is without sin” axe and rushing away from developing its central character, an empty vessel who’s abandoned by everything, even his own movie. In that way, if nothing else, Priest becomes an accidental parable of Christ’s story after all.