Five years after his brilliant dark comedy “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, Martin McDonagh has written and directed another brilliant tale about friendship, ambition, and loneliness. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is the best a McDonagh movie has ever looked, every scene has a visual landscape setting and the colour tone has a uniquely pleasing filter throughout. It pays homage to other ‘Irish’ classics such as “Ryan’s Daughter” and “The Quiet Man” and in its costumes and setting there are very obvious echoes of J. M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World”.
The movie is set on an island off the coast of Ireland about 100 years ago. On the mainland a Civil War is raging, where after long years of colonisation, brother is fighting brother; friends and families are being ruptured and irreparably damaged. However, the island, the last bastion of innocence, has its own demons and banshees to contend with. Inisherin is an enclosed place, a microcosm, where everything is concentrated and the surrounding sea keeps everything compressed and isolated. This island has deeply affected its inhabitants and they have each been moulded by it and damaged by its limited horizons.
McDonagh was born in London in 1970 the son of Irish parents from the West of Ireland. The backdrop to his childhood and early adulthood was dominated by ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and Britain’s most recent involvement in that sad and tragic episode in Irish history. The setting for this film, Inisherin, has only recently freed itself from the grip of British colonial domination, and the gossipy postmistress is seen painting the red postbox in the village a garish green, the colour of the new ‘Free State’. There is evidence of other colonial powers at play also: the island is home to a prominently located Catholic church and the mysterious and magical Latin Mass reminds us of the power of Rome. There is also a grotto to the Virgin Mary which stands where the road diverges.
So, this is Ireland: there’s a pub, a church, a Post Office, a thatched cottage where Pádraic Ó Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) lives with his unmarried sister Siobhán; and another hovel where Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) lives alone. Colm, who plays the violin and composes (mediocre) music, has recently become obsessed with the passing of time, with the pressing need to indulge his art in order not to be forgotten. His art now demands total exclusive focus from him, leaving no room for the banality of feelings and former friendships. Pádraic Ó Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) can’t figure out why his friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) has become hostile and refuses to speak to him. Colm’s behaviour turns darkly troubled and before long even Pádraic is acting a bit unhinged himself, especially after the departure of his sister, Siobhán, (played superbly by Kerry Condon), to the mainland. Pádraic’s repeated efforts at reconciliation only strengthen his former friend’s resolve and when Colm delivers a desperate ultimatum, events swiftly escalate, with shocking consequences.
It becomes clear there’s something beneath the surface of their friendship that is struggling to break through to see the light of day. Colm no doubt knows what it is, but Pádraic may not have quite figured it out yet. Only a few fleeting moments hint at their deep feelings for each other, but it is a subject neither of them can even articulate – much less try to fulfil.
The movie is a study of friendship on the edge of becoming something deeper, but instead, it works its way out in violent, destructive deeds. The shockingly needless maiming is a metaphor for the Civil War atrocities taking place within earshot of the islanders. What we have here is what Patrick Kavanagh would call ‘a local row’ and there is another bigger ‘local row’ in progress on the nearby mainland, again as Kavanagh would say, ‘God’s make their own importance’.
The movie tries to resolve its three main subplots and in the end, all three have their perfect conclusions and intersect cleverly. The writing is impeccable and as in “Three Billboards Outside Epping, Missouri” and the earlier “In Bruges”, there is a perfect blend of humour and tragedy. The three stories revolve around Pádraic trying to come to terms with the fact that his best friend Colm has rejected him; his sister Siobhán trying to find a meaningful purpose in her life and Dominic (played by Barry Keoghan), who is fighting his own demons and seeking friendship and intimacy. Indeed, Barry Keoghan’s performance as the haunted abused, and fragile Dominic is a masterclass and equals John Mill’s performance in the classic “Ryan’s Daughter”.
The wild beauty and desolate qualities of the island are captured in the cinematography and the music is perfectly sewn into the fabric of the film without drowning it. What’s so satisfying about the story, is that you’re left to interpret it for yourself. This, of course, has caused consternation on Twitter and Live Line and on other platforms because McDonagh leaves people to make up their own minds.
It is a well-told dark (even black) comedy that keeps you wanting more. McDonagh explores a myriad of largely unexplored themes at a time when Ireland was full of despair, not long after the War of Independence and a long-suffering period that brought about a post-colonial inferiority complex (which still hasn’t been fully addressed to this day). Other motifs touched on include: the struggle to achieve an Irish identity, a repressive church, superstitions, isolation, mass emigration, poverty and to top it all off a brutal civil war. This film does a great job to capture the zeitgeist of the time and to top that off the cinematography, costumes, music, and atmosphere are wonderful.
Both leads, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, as they did in “In Bruges”, knock it out of the park, and they are ably supported by the two new shining stars of Irish cinema in Barry Keoghan and the beautiful Kerry Condon. Pat Shortt who plays Jonjo Devine the publican and Jon Kenny who plays his sidekick Gerry add to the ensemble cast and they make valuable contributions to the banter and gossip in the pub scenes. (And there are also goats, a dog and a donkey, a horse, and some nondescript cattle).
And then there is the war, distant but present, with ominous explosions heard in the distance. And finally, there is the old banshee (a fairy woman), a legendary harbinger of Death in Irish folklore and legend. At times it’s hard to tell if this is a wonderful dark comedy or a Shakespearean tragedy. Served by a magisterial group of actors and actresses, this film takes you to stunning Irish landscapes and gives you a false sense of security with its comfortable scenery, cute farm animals, and lovely violin tunes in the old local shebeen … until men resort to a classic story of pride and stubbornness, mirroring the sad, pathetic and damaging Civil War being played out on the mainland.
Like a dark children’s tale, the movie seems to be a metaphor for the stupidity of war and humanity’s many contradictions. Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and a scene-stealing Barry Keoghan as Dominic are just wonderful at creating those flawed and unique men spiralling toward their destiny.
Martin McDonagh has created a fantastic piece of filmmaking here with a very timely message. The ending, like all black comedies, is pessimistic – Pádraic suggests that scores have not been settled fully – like the war of brothers on the mainland this local skirmish will be played out until the banshee’s prophecy is finally fulfilled. Dare I say it but Colm’s dog may well be Pádraic’s next target!
“The Banshees of Inisherin” is not perfect and no modern director has the ability to satisfy every critic – and there are many. Maybe I ascribe far too much credit to McDonagh in this review but I have to say I really enjoyed exploring the intricate layers of meaning suggested in the dialogue and the cinematography. For me, it is the best movie of the year so far, better even, dare I say it than “An Cailín Ciúin”. It has left me brooding long after the final credits and that’s no bad thing!