Father Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache) has arrived in this inner city Liverpool diocese after the previous priest (James Ellis), the man he is replacing, went berserk and rammed the window of the bishop's home with a weighty crucifix he had taken from the church. This should have been a strong hint as to the emotional and spiritual turmoil that Greg will soon be going through, but as he moves in with Father Matthew Thomas (Tom Wilkinson) his conservative views are at odds with this man who is having an affair with his housekeeper Maria (Cathy Tyson). But Father Greg has a secret of his own...
Priest was writer Jimmy McGovern's first work for the big screen to be adapted, granted by the BBC for future showing on their channels, as he had made his name in Britain as a skilled writer for television, one who was most comfortable being confrontational. Not that he was being argumentative for the sake of contrariness, as there was a fierce intelligence behind his writing that because of his passionate views did tip his efforts into melodrama at times. Mostly, though, McGovern was provocative in the best sense, tackling big ideas and issues through his chosen medium, as he did here with the controversial taking on of the Catholic Church.
Not that Priest made much of a diifference other than ruffling a few religious feathers, and you could have accused it of playing to the gallery without a hope of forcing the hand of anyone in power. If anything, McGovern was taking on too many aspects of the Catholic establishment at once, as the film is nothing if not busy, with the focus shifting from one part of Father Greg's worries to another and only really tying them together at the end with a message of the importance of forgiveness. In its liberal fashion, it liked to think that the most conservative of men could find a way to open up and see the light of the middle ground, and even the left wing, so instead of exposing Greg's hypocrisy it preferred to understand him and be sympathetic.
So what does he have to contend with in this job? For a start there's the celibacy question, where Father Matthew offends him by carrying on in a loving relationship with Maria, with neither of them exploiting the other, not something the powers that be in the Church are content with, although here they turn a blind eye. No sooner than we have that to chew over than a more personal issue arises for Greg, and that's his homosexuality, which exhibits itself after he is frustrated by the poverty and apathy he sees by going to a gay bar and picking up Graham (Robert Carlyle, who McGovern had written a starmaking role for in his Cracker series). Soon he has fallen in love, and is wrestling with his conscience.
But if McGovern saw that the Catholics should have accepted priests' love lives, to contrast he brought up yet another plotline as Greg finds out in confession that one teenage girl (Christine Tremarco) in his flock is being abused by her father (Robert Pugh), a vile monster who turns up for his own confession to warn Greg from saying anything. Of course the priest should have gone to the authorities, or at very least told the girl's mother (Lesley Sharp), but his code of conduct prevents him, something else which evdently angers the writer. This pressure cooker situation is going to boil over at some point, and it's wondering how things can possibly resolve themselves that proves compelling. McGovern and director Antonia Bird were not coming to this from an atheist or even agnostic angle, and did have faith that God was a necessary part of life even if his subjects were confused about His message, so if Priest did have too much on its plate it did what it set out to do, and spark debate. Music by Andy Roberts.
British director who moved from television into films with the controversial Priest. Hollywood beckoned, but Mad Love was an unhappy experience, and she returned to Britain to direct heist movie Face, which led to cannibal horror Ravenous, then a return to television. Frequently worked with Robert Carlyle.