Film & Television

When Irish eyes aren’t smiling

Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) and Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) in The Banshees of Inisherin. Photo: Jonathan Hession/Searchlight Pictures

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Opening with a low aerial shot of the Ireland’s west coast, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin at first scans as a wry and pastoral film – an uncomplicated, picturesque, and essentially conventional Oirish folk story, populated as it is with a nurturing sister, an officious priest, a brutal policeman, a tragically simple lad, a busybody storekeeper, and a would-be banshee. Unlike, say, Ken Loach’s stirringly nationalistic The Wind that Shakes the Barley, it does not overtly assume a mission of historical clarification or vindication. It is almost obligatory to note, along the lines of a cliched blurb, that the movie is darkly comic: it’s invariably mordant and occasionally hilarious. But the situational modesty and outward sardonicism are subterfuge. This is a stealthily grand film with weighty political and existential themes, framing McDonagh as contemporary cinema’s wisest bad-ass.

The official trailer for Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin

Set on the eponymous and fictitiously-named island in 1923, within earshot of gunfire on the mainland as the Irish Civil War winds down, the film revolves around the grim efforts of Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell, flawless), a humble farmer who lives with his sister and their animals, to reclaim the friendship of Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson, likewise), a dour fiddler. Once Pádraic’s best mate, Colm has abruptly and cruelly cut him off, condemning him as “dull.” Affable but gratingly feckless, Pádraic believes just being nice is enough and for years his daily trips to the pub with Colm have adequately punctuated his dreary life. Ego and the passage of time stalk Colm, who has come to see their Seinfeldian routine as an obstacle to his destiny as an Irish folk musician and composer. But this is Ireland in the 1920s, not the Upper West Side in the 1990s, and Colm’s banally macabre means of deterring Pádraic from impeding his goal diminishes his very capacity to fulfill it. Inadvertently, that mechanism also destroys something Pádraic cherishes, extinguishing his innocence and unearthing an impulse for vengeance. Grudges, he proclaims, are meant to be held. He’s still left to rusticate on Inisherin, but now indefinitely aggrieved.

In many ways, Ireland has moved past its neuralgia over British colonial oppression – past the plantations, the Protestant Ascendancy, the Great Famine, the Anglo-Irish War, the fratricidal civil war, and, nearly anyway, the Northern Irish Troubles – and beyond the moral despotism of the Catholic Church. But like the rifle shots of the Free Staters and the Irish Republican Army across the water from Inisherin – perhaps the only strained metaphor in a remarkably deft satire – these incidents of history remain irrepressible echoes in the Irish tale told here, which is also rooted in the more universal concerns of mortality, submission versus confrontation, and contentment versus aspiration. Drawing no doubt on Flann O’Brien, John Millington Synge, and Cormac McCarthy, McDonagh has distilled an impeccable parable of a nation’s soul and humankind’s lot, seductively funny, seamlessly wise, and plangently fatalistic.

The Banshees of Inisherin, written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Distributed by Searchlight Pictures, 2022.

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  1. A brilliantly revealing exploration of the themes, cross/under currents and meandering meanings of this delightful film! Watch your back A.O.S.

  2. Great to read this after seeing the film. More film reviews please Mr. Stevenson. Interesting too to have it on this site, given that the central conflict hinges on artistic ambition as it relates to one man’s desire to be remembered.

  3. Wonderful to read this after seeing the film. I’m haunted by some images and sounds, and charmed by others from it. An incredible duo they make, and a wonderful review!

  4. Great to read a thoughtful review, albeit with some awkward America-centric and historical generalizations; the film lives with you for a very long time afterwards. It is much like a Beckett play, but with excruciating beauty to balance the poignant heartbreak. The cinematic and landscape beauty, poetic speaking, magic realism, and close-ups of gravitas within simplicity–are all terribly affecting and meaningful.

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