A conservative young Catholic priest (Roache), handsome in a watery way, is assigned to a working-class parish in Liverpool. He instantly disapproves of fellow priest Wilkinson, a hearty, embrace-all-humanity type whose liberalism is of a broad enough stripe to permit his sleeping with the housekeeper (Cathy Tyson). But Roache makes his own serious slip in the celibacy department. One night, after presiding over a very boozy wake, he reaches into his closet, past the cassock and the jogging sweater, pulls out a leather jacket and bicycles off to a gay bar, where he meets the man who will become his lover. But wait, there's more! A schoolgirl (Christine Tremarco) haltingly tells, in the confessional, that her father has been abusing her. Can Roache violate the rule of confidentiality and take action to save her?
Director Antonia Bird, who would appear to have enough drama on her hands with these story strands, has a tendency to pull out too many stops. I suppose a tormented priest occasionally does clench his fists across the prayer bench and scream in fury at Jesus on the crucifix, but it comes across as hysteria. And you don't really need "You'll Never Walk Alone," plunked out on an old parish-hall piano, as background music for not one, but two crucial scenes. But this same unembarrassed earnestness—by which spiritual grappling is given the heft of sumo wrestling, and God and the Devil receive their respective, thunderous due—commands attention and, finally, emotional surrender.
Priest—though it has sparked controversy between certain Catholic groups and the studio ultimately responsible for its release, Miramax Films—is surprisingly touching. And Roache and Wilkinson are both very fine as two men who are righteous-yet-fallible in completely different ways. (R)