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The Banshees of Inisherin

Director: Martin McDonagh (Ireland, UK. USA). Year of Release: 2022

1923, Inisherin – a small island on the edge of Ireland. Across the Galway Bay, occasional gunfire can be heard as the Civil War fizzles out. Pádraic and Colm used to be best friends until Colm is overwhelmed by a sense of mortality, and wants more time to think and compose. He says: “I don’t like you any more”. Pádraic’s sister Siobhán doesn’t see what the problem is – not because her brother’s boring (“you’re all fecking boring”) but because he always was and everybody knew.

If you’ve seen the trailer or a fraction of the press coverage, you know all this already. If you’re me, you’ll also go into the cinema not knowing how it could possibly meet expectations. This is the film they’ve all been talking about for months (although today was the German release, it’s been out in other countries for quite a while). It’s written and directed by the incomparable Martin McDonagh and is his first work with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson since In Bruges. What’s not to love?

Nothing much happens in The Banshees of Inisherin – that is, if you leave aside some mutilated fingers (also threatened in the trailer). Pádraic plays the Father Dougal role in the relationship, always waiting for Colm’s guidance. His ex-friend’s apparently childish behaviour puts his life off balance. Pádraic has got through life compensating for his lack of depth by being the nice and honest one. Now, apparently, niceness and honesty are no longer virtues worth rewarding.

How boring is Pádraic exactly? Well, he once spent 2 hours talking to Colm about his miniature donkey shitting. Colm knows how long – he timed it. (Pádraic rejoinders that he can’t have been paying much attention as the story he told was about his pony). Like the greats before him – from Jude Fawley to Del Boy – Colm wants to escape a situation which he believes is beneath him. He is an intelligent man and gifted musician who is condemned to spend his time among idiots.

Colm’s claims to superiority are marginal. He is petty, and for all his desire to lead a memorable life, he doesn’t seem to be doing much to change things. There is an excellent double joke where Colm says that he wants to emulate Mozart who everyone remembers. Pádraic says that, well, he’s never heard of Mozart. Siobhán points out later, that Colm misremembered the time when Mozart lived. Like most of the film’s jokes, it works much better on screen than written down.

For all Colm and Pádraic’s sense that they have not fulfilled their potential, the most tragic figure is probably Siobhán, who is the only one who seriously considers escaping the conservative island. Siobhán and Pádraic have shared a house since their parents died nearly a decade earlier. They even share a bedroom – with beds on opposite sides of the room. Siobhán’s role is now to look after her barely functioning little brother. This is hardly the role she has always aspired towards.

Siobhán is unmarried, and you don’t really see many of her type sitting around the village pub. She reads, you see, and has secretly applied for a job in a library on the mainland. When Pádraic finds out that she might leave, he is devastated, asking first what it means for him, and then who’s going to do the cooking. Siobhán is an independent woman, who is barely able to escape people who have made themselves dependent on her.

There’s quite a bit of Beckett about the story of a group of people who are confined on a small island which is on the edge of another island that is on the edge of … and so on, and so forth. This Is a story of people being trapped in their current roles – like Vladmir and Estragon, like Hamm and Clov – vainly hoping for someone to release them from the purgatory of their current lives, while lacking the ability to initiate their own escape.

I said that nothing happens in the Banshees of Inisherin, but in a sense, everything happens. Some people made too much about the metaphors for the Irish Civil War, although there is a satisfying throwaway line about things being better when they were united in fighting the Brits. More importantly, there is serious discussion of mortality, loneliness, clinical depression and wasted opportunities in among all the old men banging on.

The film also seriously addresses sexual abuse and the fact that some policemen and just heartless bastards. Dominic, the one man in the village who Pádraic feels he can look down on, is not quite the village idiot that he initially seems to be. First there is a tragic backstory at the hands of his violent copper father, but also in his unsuccessful attempts to woo Siobhán, we see that Dominic has a much more eloquent turn of phrase than you’d think.

The Banshees of Inisherin was always going to be a good film. What makes it great is the excellent writing and ensemble acting. In particular Colin Farrell’s puppy dog eyes’ switch imperceptibly between absolute trust and utter desperation, but each character is both hilarious and the carrier of existential despair. Brendan Gleeson carries both authority and menace when he attacks a man much younger and stronger than him. And Kerry Condon as Siobhán steals every scene she’s in.

The excellent acting extends to some of the older female characters, the banshees of imminent death who haunt the edge of scenes. As Colm says, banshees no longer shriek through the night, now they live among us, watching us and smiling. The film is full of old women dressed in black watching on knowingly. Some gossip, others sit back, counting the minutes. Their very presence is disconcerting and slightly scary.

This is a hilarious film, but also one which is full of dread, aware that any minute a banshee may come and take our souls. Or maybe that is all way too pretentious, and we should just enjoy a film which is capable of making us laugh very loud indeed. Either way, there aren’t enough films like that around.

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