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Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin: a brilliantly nasty Irish fable

The director reunites Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in a timeless film full of heartbreaking sunsets and superb knitwear.

By David Sexton

Martin McDonagh’s career as a film-maker has been a bit up and down. His 2008 debut feature, In Bruges, was well received at the time and has only grown in stature since. Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell play an ill-matched pair of Irish hitmen holed up in the city, irritating one another but bonding when pursued by their psychotic boss, played by Ralph Fiennes. The film is more enjoyable every time you see it.

But Seven Psychopaths of 2012, a verbose meta-crime-comedy set in Hollywood, wasn’t an advance. Despite an excellent cast (Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson), it doesn’t just chase its own tail: it catches it and disappears up its own premise.

In 2017, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was initially a great success, taking $160m at the box office and receiving many awards, including Oscars for Rockwell and Frances McDormand. But it has been subsequently criticised, not just for its caricature of small-town America but for the redemptive arc offered to its violently racist cop Officer Dixon (Rockwell).

Now here’s McDonagh’s fourth feature, cultivating his Irish roots and reuniting Gleeson and Farrell. The setting is a tiny, scantly populated island off the west coast of Ireland in April 1923, with the Irish Civil War reaching its climax on the mainland, and gunfire and explosions being heard over the water. Fiddle player and would-be composer Colm (Gleeson, as intransigent and monumental as ever, his dewlap now almost a special effect) has been going to the one local bar with his nice but dim chum, Pádraic (the always appealing Farrell), every single day for years, to while the time away in idle chatter.

But in the film’s opening scene, Pádraic calls by Colm’s cottage and his friend, sitting inside smoking, flatly ignores him. Pádraic is baffled. The next day Colm brutally tells him: “I just don’t like you no more.” “You do like me,” says Pádraic helplessly. “I don’t,” says Colm. Pádraic can’t get his head around the idea.

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Later, Colm explains himself. Time is slipping away. In 12 years, he’ll be dead. If he works at his music, there’ll be something new in the world that won’t be there if he wastes time listening to Pádraic talk shite (literally: one of his favourite topics is the droppings of his darling donkey). He wants to be left alone. When Pádraic dumbly fails to do that, he threatens to mutilate himself.

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So here’s a rather creaky dilemma – the claims of art versus the demands of life. The film just swings that one with excellent music by McDonagh collaborator Carter Burwell, which avoids diddly-dee Irish jigs for Colm’s own compositions, and brings ethereal sounds into the soundtrack, implying a world elsewhere. But the film’s real subject is much closer to home: the pain of any kind of break-up of a long-standing relationship, romance or friendship. Gleeson and Farrell have their own history together (for us too) and are immediately credible as a pair with a shared past.

Pádraic realises with horror that Colm is suggesting he never really liked him. He has so little else on this tiny island. He lives in a primitive cottage, sharing a bedroom with his better educated, younger sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), who sees all too clearly the place’s limitations. “One more silent man on Inisherin – you’re all fecking boring with your piddling grievances,” she tells Colm. Pádraic’s only other friend is Dominic (Barry Keoghan), the son of the island’s bullying policeman. Dominic is initially sympathetic, but then he, too, turns against Pádraic. For good measure, the island is haunted by Mrs McCormick (Sheila Flitton), a banshee predicting death and disaster.

The Banshees of Inisherin, the last in a trilogy of plays by McDonagh set in the islands, is a work of great purity, beautifully made. Filmed on Inishmore and Achill Island, the landscapes look lovelier than ever before, the magic-hour sunsets heart-breaking. The knitwear is superb, the country furnishings exquisitely folkloric. The lighting, pre-electricity, is a treat, the silences profound. Above all, the language is seductive, so rhythmic, so much call and response, speaking of an enclosed community and its traditions.

The Irishry is extreme, not much offset by the suggestion that Pádraic and Colm’s differences are a microcosm of those tearing the mainland apart. Such terminal Irishry, in fact, is perhaps only possible among the diaspora (McDonagh is a Londoner) but, as we all know from the extraordinary strength of Irish fiction, it’s a world that enables storytelling like nowhere else. This brilliantly nasty fairy tale knows its place.

This article was originally published on 19 October 2022.

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This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency