Like his previous movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), writer director Martin McDonagh opens The Banshees of Inisherin with a quiet and peaceful song. The lush green landscape of the island of Inisherin merging with the calm and harmonious chorus pulls us into this cinematic fable right away. McDonagh loses no time to bring out the heart of the matter, the sudden fallout of a lifelong friendship between Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson). In parallel, across the island on the mainland, the Irish civil war rages. The year is 1923.
The juxtaposition of mellow, ponderous music with outward conflicts always makes interesting contrasts, just like mixing comedy with drama, humour and sadness, which McDonagh is so apt in doing. An acclaimed British-Irish playwright whose plays have been performed in the West End and on Broadway, McDonagh is astute in his dialogues, embedding them with humour and poignancy to reveal the nature of the characters:
Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) likes to read and is the most sensible character in the movie. In one scene, Siobhán is reading.
Pádraic: How’s the book?
Pádraic: Sad? You should read a not sad one, Siobhán, else you might get sad.
Siobhán: Do you never get lonely, Pádraic?
Pádraic: Never get wha?
Pádraic: (mutter in annoyance) No. “Do I never get lonely?” What’s the matter with everybody?
That could give a hint why Colm stops being friends with Pádraic because “he’s dull”. Colm is older and he now thinks more about how he will be remembered when he’s gone. A fiddle player, Colm spends his time playing and composing music. “I just don’t have a place for dullness in my life anymore,” he tells Siobhán. So, when Pádraic, baffled and hurt, confronts his old friend, “you used to be nice,” Colm engages with him about the value of being nice versus being remembered. Mozart, though living in the 17th century, he says, is still being remembered today for his musical legacy. Paintings last; poetry lasts. Who’s going to remember your niceness?
Even though happy go lucky, Pádraic is now saddened by the sudden termination of friendship. He doesn’t care about Mozart, or whatsisname Borvoven, but he remembers his Mammy and Daddy, they were nice, and his sister, “she’s nice. I’ll remember her, forever.” But Colm counters, no one else would remember them other than you. Colm may be facing an existential crisis, seeking for something more permanent or trying to leave a legacy, but McDonagh’s humour seeps through simple dialogues and not let the high ideals of his character be taken too seriously by movie viewers. In this scene, Siobhán has the last word. She corrects Colm, “it was the 18th century, anyway. Mozart. Not the 17th.” Then turns and walks away. This is a dark comedy, after all.
The superb cast brings out McDonagh’s writing perfectly. Farrell and Gleeson reunite after In Bruges (2008, Oscar nom for McDonagh’s original screenplay). It’s fun watching the pair engage, a simple, usually happy Pádraic stonewalled by his best friend’s sudden withdrawal of friendship, not only that, but shocked by his drastic action to cut off one of his own fiddler finger every time Pádraic talks to him.
Condon as Siobhán is most apt in representing the rational mind amidst this absurd development. Her later decision to seek a saner and more meaningful existence is poignant. The yellow coat she wears is a bright symbol of hope. The fourth character that makes up this outstanding ensemble of actors is Barry Keoghan as Dominic, the jester who is probably the saddest of them all and one who sees more clearly than he appears.
One more crucial character must be credited, and that’s Jenny the miniature donkey (Jenny), which plays a pivotal role in the final act, inciting a drastic action from Pádraic. Friendship between man and animal just might be more steadfast than between humans. And that last vengeful resort by Pádraic brings back a similar scene in Three Billboards.
Director of photography Ben Davis’s camera is crucial in revealing the deeper meaning of McDonagh’s fable. Often we see Pádraic on the outside peering through the window into Colm’s home, or into the pub looking for Colm. Poor Pádraic now is an unwanted outsider, rejected and isolated, reminiscence of similar shots in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Or, the metaphor of the Banshee, the omen of death, represented by Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), her creepy appearance exemplifies the ever-present threat of mortality, just like the Grim Reaper in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). They don similar costume too. And the ubiquitous religious symbols and activities––the statue of the Virgin Mary on the island, the cross, the Latin mass––just make one question how their faith is relevant in the actions of these islanders.
The Banshees of Inisherin is nominated for nine Oscars in the coming awards night to be held on March 12: Best Picture, Martin McDonagh for Directing and Original Screenplay, Colin Farrell for Best Actor, Kerry Condon Supporting Actress, Brendan Gleeson and Barry Keoghan both for Supporting Actors, Film Editing, and Music (Original Score).
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
Related posts mentioned in this review:
Don’t Just Drive Past Three Billboards
Diary of a Country Priest: Film Adaptation (1951)
March is Read Ireland Month 2023 at Cathy 746 Books. You can read the screenplay of The Banshees of Inisherin online here. Upcoming posts will include books by Irish writers and possible book to screen adaptations.