While filming Pilgrimage, Tom Holland and Jon Bernthal teamed up and sent off some audition tapes. Those tapes led directly to their casting as Spider-Man and the Punisher, respectively. If anything, this is the most memorable and engaging thing about Pilgrimage.
Following a fellowship of monks who are transporting an important Christian object across Ireland, the film attempts exploring our relationship with faith and why it consumes so many people. It’s fertile material, and with the current crisis in Syria featuring many fractions all with a different interpretation of their religion, this film about 11th-century Irish monks and their trek across Ireland is socially relevant.
The depiction of Ireland should please the tourist board – it is frequently stunning, and Brendan Muldowney often has his camera drift off his actors’ beautiful visages so he can film a stream. Except, the pretty stream isn’t important to the story, and the director doesn’t give us any information we actually need. The Connemara location may be picturesque, but the characters’ relationship with the land isn’t always clear; it feels extraneous to the story, as Muldowney doesn’t know what he should be filming.
This lack of focus is fatal to a tale of this kind. Tom Holland’s Brother Diarmuid is set up as the main character, the most religiously flexible who will see the journey strengthen or weaken his faith. It’s the basis for great internal conflict. For example, Andrew Garfield’s performance in Silence shows how engaging it can be, but the film doesn’t explore this in any interesting way. Diarmuid doesn’t really have his faith tested, and his initial doubts are never explored. Holland is a skilled young actor, but he isn’t good enough to overcome this type of bad writing.The external conflict is just as underdeveloped. It is unclear why Richard Armitage’s Sir Raymond de Merville is pursuing the monks, and it appears there is past beef between him and Bernthal’s mute. Yet, too much of this is left to the imagination, and Armitage becomes a straight up villain far too late in the movie. Having a character whose allegiances are mysterious is fine, but there must be a wider external conflict before his true colours emerge. The action scenes between the two forces don’t expand our understanding of the characters, and Muldowney is unsure about how violent the movie should be. One sword swing will make a flesh wound, the very next one will decapitate someone.
It’s not all bad, though. Bernthal gives a good physical performance as a man who can barely contain his anger, and Richard Armitage is suitably menacing. And, you must salute the film’s bravery. It doesn’t try to hold your hand when explaining its complex medieval politics, and the film switches between French, Gaelic and English with ease. Holland, particularly, should be praised for delivering most of his lines in Gaelic. The cast also has an unprecedented dedication to bad haircuts, something missing from most modern films.
This all culminates in a finished film you are as unsure about as the film is about itself. The final shot, which is paired with the end of Holland’s character arc, only adds to our befuddlement. Ambiguity is often a strong way to end a film, but Pilgrimage is sitting on the fence instead. The actors are game, but they can’t turn this water into wine.
Pilgrimage comes to Blu-ray , DVD and Digital Download on 3 July 2017 through STUDIOCANAL