Runtime: 114 minutes
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan
By Calum Cooper
From the first line of dialogue, when Colin Farrell’s Padraic asks Brendan Gleeson’s Colm if he’s “comin’ to the pub”, I knew I was going to like “The Banshees of Inisherin” (2022). Sure enough, it was a riotously clever feature that left me wheezing with laughter one moment, and stunned into silence the next. Director Martin McDonagh has always grappled with anger or darkness in his films, and “The Banshees of Inisherin” is no different. But the dual tone of comedy and drama is what makes this film so distinctive. Its narrative beats are as amusing as the consequences are tragic.
Set in 1923, on the fictional island of Inisherin, off the coast of Ireland, Padraic and Colm are best friends within a very small community. One day however, Colm suddenly ends their friendship. Hurt by this abrupt development, Padriac’s attempts to reconcile only make the situation worse. Before long, the pair are in the midst of a full-blown conflict, one that gets increasingly shocking the longer their squabble goes on for.
McDonagh’s films have always had elements of morbid humour to them, even if it’s purely for the eloquent vulgarity of his dialogue. This is his funniest film yet. It takes the simple premise of two friends falling out and follows the potential down the most bizarre paths, resulting in drastic consequences born from a petty scenario. The absurdity of the men’s actions, and the fiery one liners they exchange, are side-splitting in their farcical nature. One notable highlight includes a lie Farrell makes to a character about a bread van, the punchline of which is so odd and unexpected that it takes you a moment to recover from laughing.
The comedy is a veil for deep, complex themes that give “The Banshees of Inisherin” humour and pathos. Among these are measured explorations on toxic masculinity, loneliness, and purpose. During a tense standoff in the pub, Padriac rebukes Colm’s worries about fading into obscurity after death, making a surprisingly tender speech about the value of kindness, even if it doesn’t amount to the same level of remembrance that creating great art would. In a film where isolation plays a heavy role, such a moment screams poignancy.
Ben Davis’s cinematography is miraculous in portraying physical and mental solitude. Wide shots are used to great effect to establish the remoteness and general emptiness of Inisherin. With characters often occupying the corners of the frame, or the centre of it on their own, one gets the impression of little people in a big world. Visual motifs are similarly used to distinguish the longing that comes from separation. Windows are used frequently, with Padraic and Colm at either side of the glass. Through this, McDonagh and team convey the depth of Padraic’s anguish at the distance between him and his best friend with no words at all. It is a beautiful film that showcases people at their saddest.
“The comedy is a veil for deep, complex themes that give “The Banshees of Inisherin” humour and pathos. Among these are measured explorations on toxic masculinity, loneliness, and purpose.”
Small communities often result in higher tensions when conflicts occur. As the islanders painfully remind the pair “news travels fast”. This adds to the comedy and drama, yet it also gives McDonagh’s script plenty of time to flesh out the characters. They embody the best qualities of Ireland – notably their tough love and sense of humour – but there’s also deeper layers. Colm is an ageing man who fears death and what will happen to the memory of him once he’s gone. Padriac’s sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) is as rough talking and tough as the men. She’s certainly much smarter than everyone around her with her devout interest in literature. But she desires new opportunities that the island cannot provide for her, creating a further example of isolation. Padriac, to use the Irish term, is a bit of an eejit. He’s not very bright and even less confident. But companionship, in the form of his sister, the animals they look after, and at one point Colm, are the things that kept him happy. It is small wonder that the building isolation is linked to the increasing toxicity.
Farrell and Gleeson are magic on screen together. Their magnetic chemistry is a tense, almost childish, dynamic that’s effortlessly addictive; akin to a duo like Laurel and Hardy. Both performances that tap into the veiled vulnerability that is both hidden behind and fuels the dark comedic actions depicted. Farrell is the standout, if we’re splitting hairs, but watching the two of them trade petty, and often repetitively savage, insults as well as heartfelt declarations of turmoil is equal parts hilarious and moving. Condon provides plenty of snark and level headedness amongst the chaos, but again with a hidden degree of sadness that devastates when it periodically appears. Barry Keoghan also shines in a supporting role as the local fool, a character of great humour with a surprisingly hard-hitting moral core.
All of this amounts to a side-splitting comedy with a dark, dramatic edge to it. Yet where this film achieves its greatest power is in the metaphorical setup of its story. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is set to the backdrop of the Irish Civil War, a bitter and significant conflict whose aftermath still continues to influence Irish politics to this very day. With how absurdly violent the clash between these two gets, especially over something that appears trivial to an outsider, one can read the film as McDonagh’s own satirical commentary on the historical conflicts of Ireland; specifically with how these conflicts have only prolonged further hurt the longer they’ve gone on for. If this indeed was McDonagh’s aim, then it adds even more compelling dimensions onto an already subtly layered movie.
The beauty and genius of “The Banshees of Inisherin” however is that even if one does not spot or agree with this reading, the film can still be taken at face value. Seen in this way still provides us with a roaringly entertaining spectacle; one that dazzles with its filmmaking, touches with its acting, and mesmerises with its sharp script and deft balancing act between comedy and drama. A tragicomedy at its finest, its capacity for moving poignancy and belly-aching laughter is equally powerful and stunningly realised.
Simply, “The Banshees of Inisherin” is not just a highlight of this year’s London Film Festival. It’s one of the year’s best films!
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