The Banshees of Inisherin: To be friend or not to be friend

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?
Siobhán: Sad.
Pádraic: Sad? You should read a not sad one, Siobhán, else you might get sad.
Siobhán: Mm.
(pause)
Siobhán: Do you never get lonely, Pádraic? 
Pádraic: Never get wha?
Siobhán: Lonely.
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

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Related posts mentioned in this review:

Don’t Just Drive Past Three Billboards

Diary of a Country Priest: Film Adaptation (1951)

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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. 

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Tár: To Catch a Falling Star

There are movies that you admire especially upon rewatching but still leave you emotionally detached. The overall tone is artistic and elegant, the camera clever, editing seamless, fantasy sequences enhance the tension, and needless to say, superb acting delivered by the cast. You admire and appreciate the director’s execution, yet you’re not emotionally engaged. Tár is one such movies for me.

Writer director Todd Field’s masterpiece is a film packed with ideas and layered with symbolism conveyed through technical brilliance. It explores power and ambition, identity politics, the separation of the art from the artist, and cancel culture in our contemporary society. Using a phrase ubiquitous in this awards season, it is everything, everywhere, all at once.

At the beginning of the film, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself) introduces conductor and composer Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) by reading out a list of her accolades for his live audience and us, movie viewers who would see, in the next two and a half hours, how a radiant star fall from grace. As the film opens, Tár is at the summit of the classical music world, helming the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic. A Harvard PhD, she was mentored by Leonard Bernstein in the emergence of her career, and is currently one of only 15 EGOT winners (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony); her upcoming book Tár on Tár will no doubt be a bestseller.

Field’s feature is nominated for six Oscars in this awards season. It is a forceful narrative and an astute study of power set within an artistic and cultured realm. Blanchett’s Tár embodied success driven by ambition and sustained by ruthless arrogance. She may appear courteous and mild mannered, and that’s where the danger lies. She doesn’t need to raise her voice to be heard.

From the beginning of the movie, the sequence of the custom tailoring of her suit––a symbol of power––sets the premise. The film is not about gender politics, for Tár’s position is a given; she is already at the podium leading a world renown orchestra and is hailed as one of the best living composers.

There are, of course, higher mountains to scale. The self-propelled driving force soon turns Tár into a delusional egotist, her self-will overriding all that comes in her way, destroying not just her career but her relationship with her spouse Sharon (Nina Hoss), concert-master in the orchestra. Field wrote the screenplay with Blanchett in mind. He had mentioned in an interview that if she declined the role, he would not go ahead with the movie. Blanchett delivers with convincing mastery. 

While being a fictional character, Tár embodies some real-life issues with much relevance in contemporary society. Her being in a lesbian marriage exemplifies the fact that power can corrupt regardless of gender and sexual orientation. She has the power to endow opportunities and thereby raising the career of young musicians to new heights, or, destroy them. Her obsession with success soon becomes unmanageable, distorting her view of reality, pulling her into the abyss of delusion and even madness. 

Among the various issues the film touches on, the Juilliard teaching scene is particularly telling. Tár is teaching a conducting class in a lecture theatre. The camera expertly captures the ten-minute scene with one long take (no cutting). The blocking of the two main characters––Tár and the student Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist)––speaks volumes.

Max chooses a contemporary piece by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir to conduct. Stopping him midway, Tár brings up the importance of Bach’s work, sitting down beside him as equal to discuss and ask if he would consider conducting a Bach piece. Here’s Max’s response:

“Honestly, as a BIPOC, pangender person, I’d say Bach’s misogenystic life makes it kind of impossible for me to take his music seriously.” He’s referring to the composer having had fathered 21 offsprings. 

Boycotting Bach for his brood of children?

Here’s Tár’s restrained response: “I’m unclear as to what his prodigious skill on the marital bed has to do with [his Mass in] B minor.” Pointing out the issue of separating the art from the artist.

Drawing out the thought in Max, she says: “Can classical music written by a bunch of straight Austro-German church going white guys exalt us?” To answer that, she invites Max to sit by her side at the piano, going through with him some Bach pieces. To her credit, in both instances, her persuasion is gentle and egalitarian as the camera captures teacher and student sitting at the same level.

Max’s viewpoint is a biting issue today: can a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), pangender person acknowledge the contribution of straight, ancient white guys? Tár’s response is obvious. The artists’ works override their nationality, colour and gender. Likewise, she challenges Max to look at the composer of his own choice, Icelandic, female composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. What is the resemblance that Max has to identify with her?

Brilliant question. To which Max responds by picking up his stuff and walks out, with a verbal swipe of expletive for his teacher. Tár replies: “And you’re a robot. The architect of your soul appears to be social media.”

Who wins this debate? Field leaves it to his viewers to decide. As with the other issues laid out in the film as well as the ending, there are more questions than answers. Yes, Blanchett’s performance is top-notch, but I come out having a higher appreciation of Field’s writing.

~ ~ ~ Ripples