Manic monks go mad in the Irish midlands

Pilgrimage review: Zealots, tyrants and opportunists drag themselves across our damp interior.

Jon Bernthal and Tom Holland in ‘Pilgrimage’

Film Title: Pilgrimage

Director: Brendan Muldowney

Starring: Tom Holland, Jon Bernthal, Richard Armitage, Stanley Weber

Genre: Adventure

Running Time: 96 min

Thu, Jul 13, 2017, 15:06


Why has it taken so long for Irish cinema to deliver a satisfying medieval eye-gouger? Brendan Muldowney’s Herzogian quest movie – from a lean script by Jamie Hannigan – exploits the Ireland’s ancient discontents to satisfying effect as it drags a party of zealots, tyrants and opportunists across the damp interior. There’s something of Nicolas Winding Refn’s unvalued Valhalla Rising to Pilgrimage, but the film is busier, noisier and less oblique. Enjoy with a glass of mead and some scrofula.

We begin with an even more ancient prologue during which some future saint is battered to death with a rock the size of an American football. Centuries later, the relic is guarded by a group of monks in a remote corner of Ireland (as most corners then were). Jerusalem has just fallen and the monks are urged to move their precious item closer to Rome. A journey through the bogs puts them in the ways of Norman invaders and ruthless barbarians.

Hannigan has worked hard at defining characters with a few precise strokes. Jon Bernthal looms menacingly as a mysterious mute. Stanley Weber oils his way around the rough-hewn brothers as the official representative of the hierarchy. Currently soaring between skyscrapers as Spider-Man, Tom Holland is wide-eyed as a novice shouldered with unasked-for responsibility. There is enough there to generate convincing tensions and support modest character arcs.

Solid research has gone into the creation of Pilgrimage. There is a real sense of ordered humanity surviving barbarity (as Kenneth Clark famously said in Civilisation) by the skin of its teeth. The brothers’ faith in the stone’s power seems excusable in such a cruel universe.

What really makes Pilgrimage buzz, however, is an impressively scuzzy ambience powered by repeated outbreaks of raw violence. The film is closer to Conan the Barbarian than Martin Scorsese’s Silence. That is no bad thing. Tom Comerford’s cinematography is drenched. The fight scenes are excellent. The disembowellings play out to damp squelches.

Can’t say it passes the Bechdel test, mind you.