Martin McDonagh reunites with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, and returns to form, with the biting satire, The Banshees of Inisherin. Although many liked his last film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I personally didn’t. I think the cultural disconnect between America and Europe let it down. But now, back in familiar territory, he brings his trademark black comedy to a film that seems perfectly suited to the times.
Before McDonagh ventured into film with In Bruges, he was (and remains) a noted playwright and director. Although born and raised in the UK, his parents came from County Galway in Ireland, and McDonagh embraced his Irish heritage. His first successes in theatre came with his Leenane trilogy – The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), A Skull in Connemara (1997) and The Lonesome West (1997). He then embarked on another trilogy set in the Aran Islands. The Cripple of Inishmaan (1996) and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001) were produced; but the third installment (then called The Banshees of Inisheer) was shelved. According to an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in October 2022, McDonagh returned to the play and decided to finish off the trilogy with this film.
The film is set in the Spring of 1923. On the mainland, the Irish Civil War is trundling on. But on the island of Inisherin, life goes on pretty much uninterrupted except for the occasional sound of gunfire echoing across the strait. The inhabitants are mostly farmers, including dairy farmer Pádraic Súilleabháin (Farrell). His life revolves around tending to his animals and going to the pub with his best friend Colm Doherty (Gleeson), a folk musician. That is, until Colm abruptly announces he doesn’t really like Pádraic anymore and would prefer not to see or speak with him. Colm makes his announcement on 1 April, so Pádraic rationalises that it’s all an April Fools’ Day joke. But when he sees Colm that next day, nothing has changed. Colm is dead serious. So serious in fact, he gives Pádraic a dire warning. If Pádraic tries to talk to him again, Colm will cut off one of his own fingers. Coming from a locally popular musician, this is a serious threat; especially considering one of the reasons for Colm’s decision is that he wants to spend time writing what he hopes will be his magnus opus.
Pádraic confides in his kindly sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) who tries to mediate with Colm. Local lad Dominic (Barry Keohegan) – son of the brutal island policeman Peadar (Gary Lydon) – also attempts to smooth things over. But Colm will not be swayed. But what initially seemed to be a spat between two friends becomes far more serious after a dark and disturbing turn of events.
On the surface, The Banshees of Inisherin is a reflection on sectarian violence in Ireland. The word Inisherin even means “the Irish island”, so that’s hardly a stretch. But McDonagh has always been interested in violence and its causes more broadly, and ultimately that’s where the film goes. McDonagh uses the microcosm of the fictional island as an extended metaphor about how a series of small events can lead to tragedy – an outcome that’s often self-inflicted. Sub-plots deal with domestic and family violence, the role of alcohol and the violence of the state. But McDonagh also offers a possible solution. Which is a lot for a film ostensibly about two sad men who like going to the pub.
McDonagh’s script creates a compelling narrative with a touch of absurdism. And he directs the film a bit like one of Colm’s tunes, with a jaunty lilt. Even in its darkest moments (and there are several, by the way), it never descends into the dire. Carter Burwell’s terrific score (naturally, steeped in Irish folk music) adds to the film’s tone. DOP Ben Davis (The King’s Man) provides some stunning images – no doubt boosting Irish tourism along the way – aided in no small part by Mark Tildesley’s (No Time to Die) excellent production design.
Already Oscar buzz is growing for Colin Farrell’s performance in this film. Certainly, he gives a brilliant performance as the bewildered and conflicted Pádraic. But I’d say he’s equally matched by Brendan Gleeson as the clear-eyed and blunt Colm. Barry Keohegan (Dunkirk) is fantastic as Dominic while Sheila Flitton (The Northman) adds a touch of menace as Mrs McCormick (possibly one of the banshees of the title). But if there’s any justice, an Oscar nomination should be coming the way of Kerry Condon (Three Billboards) who provides the beating heart of the film as Siobhán.
The Banshees of Inisherin is a triumph for McDonagh and his crew. This is obviously a deeply personal film for him, and one he tackles with verve and assurance. Its understated vibe and quirky dialogue add to its charms. This will certainly be in the conversation around awards season. But regardless of awards, this is a film worthy of your time and attention.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – movie review
- Top movies of 2022
- Calm with Horses – movie review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television