The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) ★★★★☆
Martin McDonagh weaves a tale rich in humour and folklore, but like its tragic characters, the story remains somehow stuck on its tiny island, and it doesn’t reach the depths it could. (3.5 /5) Beware: spoilers.
It's hard to disagree with a full screening chuckling away at the absurdity and wit of The Banshees of Inisherin. There is so much to like: a bloke who suddenly ostracises his life-long mate, no explanation given — a comical brotherly feud unfolding on a remote island — the premise drew me from the get go. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson imbue their characters with nuance and conviction, grounded by a motherly Kerry Condon and brutally-honest Barry Keoghan. Down to the miniature donkey, the film is cast perfectly.
The cinematography by Ben Davis is measured but immersive, giving due gravity and mysticism to the breathtaking landscapes of the island, earthy, lived-in glow to its inhabitants, and romantic frugality to the internal spaces. Deep set windows, smoke-filled rooms, the textures of 1920s rural Ireland really come to life, if a bit too prettified in places (cosy knitwear, I’m looking at you).
The delightfully expletory humour is feckin' great throughout and assuredly elicits audience reaction at every quip, lines you’ll try to quote in the pub later. But it is also where it probably goes wrong for me. The film feels like a folk tale reimagined as a dark comedy that has swung out too far one way. All the typical characters are present: the death-seeing banshee, the village dim-wit, the meddlesome priest, the nosy shopkeeper, but this time they dole out hilarity at every line.
While this is good fun to watch, as the conflict between the two friends blows out of proportion, the constant making light of everything takes up all the space, and somehow prevents us from having the air to really connect with the film's central argument: whether legacy and greatness weigh more than friendship and niceness. Do we feel Pádraic's child-like frustration? Certainly. Do we feel Colm’s dread of life slipping through his ever less fingers? We really do. But the substantial hurt of their actions always plays second fiddle to the incessant stream of humour.
Director: Martin McDonagh
Country: Ireland, United Kingdom, United States
Screenplay by: Martin McDonagh
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Producer: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Martin McDonagh
Editor: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
Editor: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
Cast: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan
Runtime: 1h 49m
This is why it feels like the film is running out of steam towards the end, and just reduces to painful one-up-manship, garnered with gratuitous dismemberment, and some predictable plot feints. From one point onward nothing new is revealed about the characters, apart from their donkey-like stubbornness. So much so, that even Pádraic's sister has enough of it, and flees to be a librarian on the mainland.
On a random side note, the film opens with a well known piece by the Mystery of Bulgarian Voices choir, a polyphonic ballad called Polegnala e Tudora. The lyrics describe a maiden who had been sleeping under an olive tree, until the wind awakens her from a dream of her beloved offering a ring. She’s damn mad at the restless wind. This chimes in with Pádraic's incessant chatter suffocating the deep-thinking and composing Colm is set on doing, but few would get this. Partly because of my heritage, but mainly because stylistically the choir singing cuts a very different tone to the rest of the music in the film, it felt a little out of place. Still — I’m pleased more people might be introduced this music.
To me The Banshees of Inisherin feels like an exquisitely made short film, which just happens to run to feature length because Farrell and Gleeson are
so watchable. There is a certain simplicity to the story which some might argue is what the best folk tales are — endlessly refined to just the most essential elements — but I craved more philosophical depth, which exists in the premise, and perhaps in the first half, but wasn’t there in the ending. I just didn’t feel it in my gut.
That may or may not be the highest objective of every cinema goer, or even the purpose of the director. Maybe he wanted no moral resolution of the story, no conclusions or learnt lessons, just the comic but painful absurdity of two stubborn men on a downward path of loss, a snapshot of a ridiculous situation.