A long time ago, I was a Catholic. Even though I have left the Church, I have deep respect for certain aspects of The Faith. Priest, I figure, is not one that would make either a lukewarm or lapsed Catholic want to return to Mass. Given the scandals that have engulfed the Catholic Church and the advances homosexuals have made since Priest was released (even within the Church General), the film looks almost quaint by today's standards.
Father Greg (Linus Roache) has come down to Liverpool to begin his work among the poor. He is young and enthusiastic about his vocation, a passionate advocate for the poor and those who seek redemption for their sins. However, the good priest is in for a big surprise: the senior priest Father Matthew (Tom Wilkinson) is schtupping (to use a good Yiddish term) his housekeeper Maria (Cathy Tyson). As a good Catholic shepherd, his elder keeping a mistress and indulging in Liberation Theology appalls Greg. Still, not much he can do about it, and he tolerates it with a cool contempt.
Greg does his best to be a good intermediary and counselor to his congregation. However, the good padre has a secret of his own, and it's a whopper: his sexual yearnings are for other men. Sans collar, he goes to gay bars, and meets up with Graham (Robert Carlyle). Let us say, Father Greg gives in to temptation and indulges in the pleasures of the flesh with one from his own gender.
I figure at least one of those activities is forbidden to a Catholic priest; just a guess.
Greg continues on his mission to bring those into the fold of the Mother Church, but then he gets another blow: one of his parochial parishioners, Lisa Unsworth (Christine Tremarco) tells him her father has been molesting her. However, she tells him this in Confession, which he by Church law is forbidden to talk about to anyone. While Mrs. Unsworth (Leslie Sharp) is completely oblivious to all of this, her father, Phil (Robert Pugh) knows that he knows, and almost takes a monstrous glee at taunting Greg over his horrifying act of incest. He also knows that Greg cannot reveal anything or break his vows.
Of course, Greg has already broken them with Graham, who finds him at the church. In remarkably short order Graham has fallen in love (or at least in heavy lust) with Greg. He now has two difficult issues on his hands: Lisa's emotional/physical disintegration over her secret and his own secret about his own sexual proclivities. On both issues he appears powerless because he literally can't confess to either. Perhaps in order to be able to speak about it to anyone, or because he wanted something close to a relationship, Greg gets in contact with Graham. As it stands, their affair resumes but on seeing Graham at Mass, Greg is stunned enough to deny him Communion, leaving Graham hurt and angry.
Greg suffers in silence, but it is wrecking him emotionally and spiritually, leading to an intense crisis of faith where he lashes out to & at Christ for binding him so. God, however, has other plans: Mrs. Unsworth discovers on her own the shocking acts of her husband on their daughter. She also discovers Father Greg knew of the incest all along. Emotionally vulnerable and spiritually adrift, he turns again to Graham, where their indulging in more sin in a parked car leads to scandal. His arrest and guilty plea make the front page and Greg attempts suicide.
The Church hierarchy exiles Greg, much to the anger of Father Matthew, who is even angrier that the congregation wants nothing to do with a priest once loved and respected. Matthew uses Greg's scandals to lash out at the Church and its hypocrisies. The Church brooks no opposition: not only do they strike at Matthew by reminding him he is their employee, but Greg is stranded with a Latin-speaking priest with a heart of stone. Matthew comes to Greg and begs him to say Mass with him. After some prodding, Greg agrees. The Mass is a disaster: a mass (no pun intended) exodus due to Greg's presence, and in the end, only Lisa is willing to take Communion from Greg.
There is something to be said about the common failing among a good number of my Christian brethren: following the letter of the Law without following the spirit of the Law, so bound by the rules that the true Christian virtues of mercy and forgiveness are withheld in order to keep said rules. I think that Priest kept a good focus on the issue of compassion (or lack thereof) and on how keeping secrets can destroy. However, once it hit the third act Priest falls apart under its own weight.
The big problem within Priest is that it overloads the story with two issues that don't really come together. You have a big issue in regards to the incest, and you have a big issue with a man of the cloth breaking his vows of celibacy with another man. Priest, from Jimmy McGovern's screenplay, could have made a good movie out of Father Greg's guilt over his sexual desires (which are frowned upon by the Church) and by his indulging in any sex. Priest also could have made a good movie out of Father Greg's guilt over being forced to keep a shameful crime secret, almost making him a party to the incest.
Instead, it threw both of them together, and this I think was a mistake because it put in too much to where the story becomes unbalanced. After the incest is discovered, the subplot is almost dropped in order to get at the homosexual angle. It's almost as if the Church wasn't bothered by the fact that a girl was being raped by her father. Instead, we go into a priest's private life. Somehow, skimming aside the rather horrid aspects of the father's action is the end result of turning our attention to the Father's actions.
I also think the film skims by too quickly to establish the characters properly. Take the romance between Greg and Graham. After one night of passion, Graham appears to fall in love with Greg. First, there was nothing to establish that Greg was even a homosexual, so when he goes to the gay bar it comes almost out of left-field. Second, we really don't see why Graham has fallen so hard for Greg (apart from Linus Roache's physical beauty). Third, the relationship comes and goes in fits and starts, whenever the story decides. Again, if director Antonia Bird had kept a stronger hold on one story rather than bounce between one and the other, Priest would have been a stronger film, a meditation on guilt and how, to quote Joy Division, guilt is a useless emotion.
Finally, as I stated, it's in the third act that Priest cracks. Once the scandal erupts and Greg is basically thrown out of Liverpool, the story appears to have little else to do. It becomes almost a long wait until it is over, which is a sad thing because the story is, up until the arrest, involving and interesting.
Priest has some strong performances, in particular Roache as the conflicted Father Greg. He creates a character who firmly believes in what the Church teaches but who is tormented by not being able to speak out against the evil that confronts him. It's a sign of Roache's acting talent that he can create a conflicted character out of a rather thin role. I think that the sexual conflict Greg has isn't as investigated as it could have been and that the few moments of physical intimacy are treated quite gently, but on the whole Roache gives an excellent performance.
I also think Carlyle did a good job with a more thinly-written role as Graham. He has slightly less to work with (as I've stated, one doesn't quite follow why he is so in love with Greg) but he does much better than the script. I am slightly less convinced by Wilkinson's progressive Father Matthew, who at times is better at giving speeches than in convincing us to take up his myriad of causes.
Priest has as its saving grace (no pun intended) strong acting, in particular from Linus Roache (an actor whose talent is greater than his fame, which is a real shame). It does tackle some important topics, and while it bungles the last act Priest still has more good to it than bad. In the end, Priest is somewhere between the sacred and the tame.