Ireland’s rural West was the setting for a cluster of plays hatched out of a remarkably prolific early period in the mid-’90s that thrust Martin McDonagh onto the map. But aside from the title initially intended to complete his Aran Islands trilogy, The Banshees of Inisherin remained for decades at a larval stage, unproduced and unpublished. The playwright considered it an immature work, floating the possibility of returning to it later in life. Preserving the title but spinning an entirely new yarn to flesh out its suggestion of folk balladry, the writer-director’s superbly acted fourth feature is his most Irish work for the screen to date, and also one of his best.
A dark comedy that evolves steadily into an unexpectedly poignant account of friendship severed — with violent force when distance doesn’t have the desired effect — though never erased, the film might be read as McDonagh parsing the cultural inheritance of his Irish parentage. More likely, however, is that this born storyteller is simply composing a melancholy duet, a separation that rumbles across the small populace of a fictional island, revealing it to be a haunted place of silence, solitude and madness, but also of kindness and resilient. humanity
The Banshees of Inisherin
The Bottom Line
Bloody and beautiful.
The film reunites Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, whose difference in age, physicality and character type makes for a Beckettian pairing that brings out the best in both actors, as it did in McDonagh’s 2008 debut feature, In Bruges. They lead a ruminative ensemble piece that expertly balances the tragicomic with the macabre, inhabiting territory adjacent to McDonagh’s stage work yet also sweepingly cinematic. The latter factor owes much to the soulful widescreen cinematography of Ben Davis, bringing a mythic quality to the rugged landscapes, and to Carter Burwell’s full-bodied, mood-shifting score, one of his loveliest.
McDonagh’s gift for flavorful dialogue and character is on display from the swift set-up, when Pádraic (Farrell) turns up at the lonely fisherman’s cottage of his lifelong friend Colm (Gleeson) for their regular 2 pm pub date and is perplexed by his cold. Reception. The older man sits inside smoking in brooding silence, clearly visible through the window but offering no explanation for his refusal to acknowledge Pádraic’s presence.
The mystifying rejection weighs heavily on Pádraic at the bar, where questions about his friend’s absence from the publican, Jonjo (Pat Shortt), rub salt into the wound. “Why wouldn’t he answer the door to me?” Pádraic asks his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) at the home they share with his beloved miniature donkey, Jenny (a scene-stealer to rival the title character of Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO.)
The next day back at the pub, Colm tells Pádraic to sit somewhere else but confirms that the younger man has said or done nothing to upset him: “I just don’t like you no more.” Gleeson’s heavy countenance conveys the cost to Colm even of minimally justifying his actions, but after much persistent prodding from Pádraic in the days that follow, he admits to finding him dull. “But he’s always been dull,” protests Siobhán. “What’s changed?”
As Pádraic’s wounded confusion grows in tandem with Colm’s gruff intransigence, it emerges that the older man can feel his life slipping away and desires only a bit of peace in his heart. He wants to spend his remaining days thinking and composing music on his fiddle. The latter interest leads him to develop new friendships with local music students, compounding Pádraic’s abrupt isolation.
While the setting is 1923 and this intimate conflict plays out against the backdrop of cannons and gunfire heard from the Civil War raging on the mainland, McDonagh teases out the humor in the former friends’ schism. This is especially the case in Farrell’s wrenchingly funny-sad performance as this sweet-natured, intellectually curious man is forced for what seems the first time to think about his limitations. Telling himself that he’s “nice, not dull,” Pádraic becomes convinced Colm is depressed and needs his help. His clumsy interventions make Colm resort to drastic, self-mutilating measures to persuade Pádraic that he’s deadly serious.
The notion of a 1920s Irish farmer (Pádraic keeps a handful of cows to supply milk to the general store) discussing depression seems as unlikely as terms like “tough love” and “nutbag” being in the vernacular. But McDonagh imbues the tale with a timeless dimension in keeping with the rocky cliff faces, the icy sea and overcast skies of its atmospheric setting.
While the ghostly folkloric creatures of the title are not literally represented, the ghoulish, black-clad crone Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton) seems to thrive on doom. “A death shall come, maybe even two deaths,” she intones with what sounds like malicious pleasure.
Siobhán, a voracious reader and the only character with any thought of ever getting away from Inisherin, calls the people there “bitter and mental,” describing the place as “nothing but bleakness and the slow passing of time.” She loves her brother and is even fond of Colm. But in Condon’s whip-smart, sharp-edged performance, her patience has been worn down to the bone. “One more silent man on Inisherin,” she calls Colm. “You’re all feckin’ borin’ with your piddling grievances.”
The ripple effect of Pádraic and Colm’s bust-up touches everyone in different ways — the gossipy shopkeeper (Bríd Ní Neachtain) who demands news like it’s the only currency she accepts; the priest (David Pearse) who comes to the island every week to say Mass, hear Confession and bite back when challenged; the mean-spirited cop (Gary Lydon) who regularly drowns his frustrations in hooch and takes out his rage on his son Dominic (Barry Keoghan) with abuse of various kinds. Even the peaceful gathering place of the pub is violated by tension.
While he’s not the brightest spark and has a blithe disregard for the standard social filters, Dominic is more perceptive than anyone gives him credit for. He has a touching openness about him, particularly when making nervous, self-effacing overtures of courtship towards Siobhán, one of the few times she drops her brittle detachment. Keoghan takes this small role and invests every line with as much delicate pathos as humorous eccentricity. It’s a wonderfully odd performance, no less essential to the film’s onion-like emotional layers than those of Farrell and Gleeson.
Periodic scenes in which Pádraic uses Dominic as a sounding board for his sorrow are especially tender. Farrell strikes a fine balance between exasperation with the policeman’s son and an aching need to fill the friendship void created by Colm’s withdrawal from his life.
Across the board, the actors could not be better. A number of them are veterans of McDonagh’s plays, including Condon, Shortt, Lydon, Flitton and Aaron Monaghan, who was a devastating lead in The Cripple of Inishmaan and here has one hilarious scene as Colm’s musician friend, brushed out of the way with cruel dispatch by Pádraic as he becomes uncharacteristically ruthless. The cast’s understanding of the peculiar rhythms and innate musicality of McDonagh’s language adds to the theatricality, yet the material is never static or stagey.
The sense of place envelops the viewer in every frame. Davis captures the exterior scenes (shot on Inishmore, in the Aran Islands) in somber natural light, with candles and gaslight for the interiors, as befits an area where electricity would not have arrived until the 1970s. And Mark Tildesley’s production design is rich in detail, from Pádraic and Siobhán’s rustic family farmhouse to the time-worn pub to Colm’s cottage, its walls and ceiling hung with musical instruments, masks, puppets and other artsy finds that speak to his transcending cultural interests. this remote place.
Throughout the film, McDonagh knowingly flirts with the absurd and the grotesque, punctuating the story with his customary jolts of creative violence and stealthily building suspense. But for all its wit, its lively talk and deceptive lightness, this is arguably the writer-director’s most affecting work. The devastating arcs of Farrell and Gleeson’s performances — two men once bonded in easy companionship, both of them eventually turned inward with glowering implacability — seed a despair that, in the end, affords them a perverse kind of mutual comfort.
The acceptance of sadness as part of life seems like something that comes only with age, which suggests McDonagh was right to sit on this title all those years, until he could dredge up characters and a story to do it justice.
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