John Pearson casts an eye over Martin McDonagh’s much lauded film.
At the time of writing, The Banshees Of Inisherin has earned nine Oscar nominations and ten BAFTA nominations. It has won three Golden Globes and was subject to a 15-minute standing ovation from the audience at its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival last September. Praise from official bodies and public figures has been seemingly unanimous.
My expectations of Martin McDonagh’s new film were admittedly quite skeptical. I was aware of the high levels of critical praise for it, with the movie enjoying an average rating of 7.8 on IMDB. The present 97% “fresh” rating and 76% audience score at Rotten Tomatoes suggests a slight discrepancy between critic and audience, but such a gap is hardly too great. The hype around the release of this film is also understandable in that it reunites its two stars, Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, whom McDonagh also cast together in 2008’s “two daft Paddy’s abroad” black comedy crime caper In Bruges.
Unlike previous films by the director, The Banshees Of Inisherin is his most indigenous film thus far and is all shot amidst the breathtakingly rocky and rugged background of the islands of Inishmore and Achill. The earthen, bleak backdrop to solicits an immediate comparison to Calvary, a dark drama from 2014 that starred Gleeson as a Catholic priest and directed by Martin McDonagh’s older brother, John Michael McDonagh.
Whereas Calvary was a darkly satirical and scathing film about a crisis of faith, abuse of power, and a dark night of the soul in post-Catholic Ireland, The Banshees Of Inisherin takes us to the year 1923, to the fictional island of Inisherin. The Irish Civil War, fought between the Pro-Treaty forces of the Irish Free State and the Anti-Treaty IRA is coming to a close. Though this film intensely focuses on deeply personal matters, as opposed to political and national ones, we do get a reference to a time and place, as “the mainland” and “Lisdoonvarna” are occasionally referred to.
The central theme of the film is the abrupt ending of a long-standing friendship between the two lead characters, Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) and Colm Doherty (Gleeson). A seemingly pleasant and simple man, Pádraic is no longer liked by fiddle player Colm because he finds him very boring. Deeply disheartened by this, and wanting to get back in Colm’s good books, Colm gives Pádraic a very literal and bloody ultimatum, severing each of his left fingers each time Colm tries to talk or engage with or bother him again.
The island of Inisherin is presented as a lonely and unforgivingly harsh place, and Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) is there to try and placate his sorrows. Roguish, troubled Dominic (Barry Keoghan) is also there to try and mediate, though he is subject to the interventions of his physically and sexually abusive father, local Garda Peadar (Gary Lydon). An unnamed priest (David Pearse) takes confession and tries to offer counsel to Colm, and engages in behavior and language which would have been considered unfathomable to a churchgoer in 1920’s rural Ireland.
“The Banshees Of Inisherin” is also the title of a new song that Colm has been composing. Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton) is also the manifestation of that very spiritual figure. Her occasional appearance in the lives of the protagonists gives foresight; that death will visit the island. Colm’s severed fingers are delivered at the household of Pádraic and become a catalyst of great vengeance, as his beloved donkey Jenny chokes to death on one of the fingers. Blaming Colm for this, Pádraic confronts him at the local pub to tell him that he will burn his house on fire, regardless of whether he is inside or not.
Indeed, Pádraic does burn down Colm’s house but shows mercy by making sure his sheepdog is kept safe from the ensuing blaze. In the aftermath, Colm speculates whether the ongoing Civil War has concluded and apologizes for his original action, Pádraic gives him the caveat that their feud would have ceased had Colm stayed in his house. Like a microcosm of the Irish Civil War itself, relations between the two protagonists are re-established and the outright hostility has been amended, yet a bitter aftertaste remains.
I am not a great believer in spoilers. I’m more of a fan of what I see as substantial within the structure. There is no doubt that there is a high level of professionalism in how this film was made and put together. In particular, the plot and screenplay on their merit a strong moral contemplation. The cinematography in many respects is considered “breathtaking” based on the beautiful landscapes it portrays.
However, like much contemporary filmmaking, it is a very digital production. No doubt, technical competency was involved, but I see a similar flaw as I did in Calvary; beyond being pretty and picturesque, it doesn’t tend to let the atmosphere and the essence of the land breathe in any profound manner, in the way a flawed masterpiece like David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970) did. Though as a fan of the meditative, drawn-out epics of Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr, I am perhaps biased. So what could be so bad about such a film, lavished with so much praise by critics, tastemakers, and big players within the film industry?
Well, it’s the result of the idea. There is no denying that the main actors cast in this movie are generally quite good at what they do and that they can convey a “presence” of sorts. But in The Banshees Of Inisherin, they are woefully miscast, and they subsequently misperform. I am fully aware of Martin McDonagh’s reputation before his filmmaking as a celebrated playwright, though I have seen none, and that many of his works indeed are set within the West of Ireland, a part of the island which may be considered the more “consciously” Celtic than in the East, or the Pale, or Dublin.
Yet everything about the characters, their dialogue, and their execution is a complete mismatch for the context of the time, and the location, regardless of the intention here. Whilst a film such as Calvary was uniquely modern and portrayed a generational crisis, Banshees critically lampoons the past, and virtually all of its major characters appear to be engaged in the most stereotypical forms of modern paddywhackery. Much of the dialogue consists of a heavy emphasis on the word “feck”. A vast majority of what constitutes the script could pass as second-rate pub banter from a “sesh”. Something feels profoundly wrong and empty about how it is acted out.
It is very easy to make comparisons to Graham Linehan’s series Father Ted, as the island is portrayed as a somewhat “weird and backward” place, albeit presented in a way that attempts to come across as far more sobering and serious, with a tinge of the absurd. The issues particular to each of the characters are far more specific to the mental anxieties of Boomers, Gen X’ers, and Millennials than they possibly could be to rural Irish people in the 1920s. The Father Ted comparison is also apt in the main interplay of the characters. Colm is to Pádraic what Ted is to Dougal. One is sophisticated, “worldly” and learned, the other simple, plain, and of “the parish”. Pádraic could ultimately leave home but seems unable to cultivate the will to do so, reluctantly accepting his fate as a dairy farmer. This “island off the coast of Ireland” is the culchie Truman Show, a paradigm and conditioning he can never break, whilst his smarter, worldly and bookish sister seeks to do so.
Barry Keoghan’s character is accented terribly, sounding like an attempt to imitate a Traveller “call out video” from Youtube channeled through a second-rate caricature of a Cork accent. Insufferably brash and arrogant, his behavior masks his deep insecurity, as he is being abused by his father, the local Gardai. Kerry Condon could pass as any regular Irish woman who regularly complains about people “giving out” whilst giving out at the same time, albeit veiled in tweeds and tartan aesthetic. Of all the main characters she is the one most free of personal baggage, her main anxiety being an unmarried woman who finds her happy ending by securing a job in a post office on the mainland.
That this film is a “tragi-comedy” is a great cope for the excuse for artistic/expressive license. There is not a single “west of Ireland” accent to be found throughout the movie, though I am very likely failing to understand the “context” of how McDonagh writes and casts his screenplays. Everyone is a caricature of the “bleeding tic” Irish person who knows little more than boozing and begrudgery. It’s the type of stuff that befitted a film like Calvary much more suitably, as it portrayed a far more scattered, contemporary Ireland that is far more uncertain about its place in the world than it would have been before.
Sadly, much of the praise lavished on this film will have already spread like wildfire into the international filmgoing community, and many viewers will be given the idea that “this is what Ireland is/was like”. It is a globalist vision of how a cosmopolitan Irish mindset would view “deep Ireland”, exerting all of its hubris, anxiety, and existentialism onto the past. The same progressive clique in Ireland that will praise this film is in no doubt emboldened by the approval of film critics, tastemakers, and awards ceremonies. If Mark Kermode can lavish praise, then there’s little debate to be had.
They are the kneejerk “cultural cringe” merchants who see any sort of romantic depiction of their homeland as a reason to hate it and spit forth opprobrium, normally in the form of comments such as “I suppose you all think we go to Mass and live in thatched cottages”. Yet their praise will selectively drift to make an exception here because the praise it has gained after the fact caters to their inferiority complex and need to be approved and loved by foreigners. It is a largely negating and self-flagellating portrayal of their homeland, but not unlike the eternal Mrs. Doyle, maybe they like the misery.
This piece originally appeared on Excuse The Blood