Martin McDonagh has found an unlikely but endearing partnership in Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. Their on screen chemistry was a crucial ingredient in the success of the 2008 dark comedy “In Bruges”. While it’s perhaps not as organic in his latest film “The Banshees of Inisheerin”, the duo’s rapport is still a solid foundation for what is a hauntingly beautiful and fable-esque tale about friendship and identity. There are admittedly times when the script could have been a little tighter and some of the roles are potentially a little underdeveloped, but overall, “Inisheerin” is a thoroughly original and evocative story, with the stunning backdrop of the eerily beautiful Achill Island off the coast of Ireland acting as a central character in itself.
The film opens in 1923 near the end of the Irish civil war, in a small agricultural community on a remote island called Inisheerin. Padraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) have been close friends for years, but one day when Padraic sits next to Colm for a beer at their local pub, Colm tells him not to sit with him. Not only that, Colm has decided that he doesn’t want to be friends anymore. Padraic hasn’t done anything, Colm isn’t mad, Colm just doesn’t like him anymore and wants to spend the rest of his waning years focusing on his composing. Not only that, but every time Padraic talks to him from then on, Colm promises that he will chop off one of his fingers with his shears and throw it at Padraic’s front door. The dynamic of this new relationship plays out across the course of the film; not only how it affects them, but also the local townsfolk, including Padraic’s sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) and local nineteen year old sweet natured simpleton Dominic (Barry Keoghan).
To begin with, the concept of a long term companion telling another that he doesn’t want to continue the friendship is a fairly novel one. We’re used to seeing romantic relationships break up in films, but other than that one episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry debates how to break up with an obnoxious friend of his, I can’t think of another example of it. And it’s a strong premise for a story. By setting it on an island at this time in history, the usual routes of simply avoiding the friend wouldn’t work. I think there’s an interesting story to be told of how this would play out within the confines of usual human dynamics, but this isn’t that film. It takes a very surreal and dark turn quite quickly, as Colm begins to lop off his fingers and hurl them at Padraic’s door. It’s an almost Shakespearean twist to the story, but it’s somewhat jarring and the dialogue between the characters as they try and reconcile it doesn’t quite fit the same tone.
Actually, the script in general isn’t the film’s strongest suit. The interactions between Padraic and Colm to me don’t ring true, and a big part of that is because we never actually see them when they’re originally friends. I think that the loss of the friendship would have been more impactful had we been able to see what was good and special about it in the first place. There’s also an ongoing theme of “being nice”, and it’s brought up constantly, and spoken about constantly. I’m not sure why exactly, but it just seemed like lazy and very literal writing to me. ““My mammy, she was nice. I remember her. And my daddy, he was nice. I remember him. And my sister, she’s nice. I’ll remember her. Forever I’ll remember her.”Perhaps it’s just a little heavy handed, in a film where symbolism is otherwise paramount to the story.
This is a strong ensemble cast, and Farrell does especially well in showcasing the bewilderment and hurt in Padraic’s good natured face gradually transition to resentment and bitterness. As Colm loses his fingers, so too does Padraic lose his optimism and belief of the goodness in his world. This transition is also reflected in the cinematography and how the island is portrayed. The serene beauty of Inisheerin’s sloping hills transgress to menacing cliffs and brutal seas as the story darkens. The stand out performance however is undoubtedly Barry Keoghan as Dominic, responsible for many of the film’s genuinely hilarious moments but also evokes some gut wrenching pathos. The scene in which he professes his love for Siobhan was so beautifully done, and was the moment when he clinched his Best Supporting Actor nom. (As happy as I am for He Huy Kwan for his win at the Oscars, Keoghan objectively gives the better performance and he was absolutely robbed). Kerry Condon is also impressive as the headstrong voice of reason. She knows that Padraic is a fool, and a dull fool at that, but he doesn’t deserve what’s happened to him and Condon’s depiction of Siobhan’s no nonsense, protective nature is pitch perfect.
“The Banshees of Inisheerin” is not without its faults; it meanders at times and the moral of the story sometimes does clash with the realities of human nature. However, what McDonagh has done is created a thought provoking and whimsical film with an outstanding ensemble cast; often funny, surprisingly dark and always exquisitely Irish.
By Jock Lehman