Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Irish Movies in Ireland: The Banshees of Inisherin

Amusingly, sort of, this is the movie I put off watching near home because I figured it might be kind of fun watching it with a local audience and getting an idea of what lands and what doesn't, and it's the last one I got to. I was kind of tickled to see this marquee before I'd even gotten off the bus from the airport to my hotel:
I actually took this the night I saw it a few days later, which means that the Irish movie which opened a month earlier was still being treated as the main attraction even though the gigantic Marvel movie had opened in the meantime, as you can see a Wakanda Forever sign somewhere below the big one. At any rate, it's a nice urban multiplex with a basic concession stand rather than a cafe - albeit one that is combined with the box office - and though Cinema Treasures confirms that it was one giant screen cut into smaller spaces over the past century (which likely makes it not quite old enough to be open during the time the film is set), it's one that's still got some lobby and lounge space rather than just being hallways.

The time in question is the Irish Civil War, which few of the historical spots I went to really discussed until I visited Kilmainham Gaol, where the guide straight-up said that it's something they don't mention much, because it doesn't have the British as external villains in the way the potato famine, Easter Uprising, and the fight for independence do, although it plays as a crucial part of their history in retrospect, a reminder that a people can repress and do violence to themselves just as well as outsiders can - or, at least, the sort of history that gets put in museums and presented to tourists. That's not the way it's played in the film, ultimately, but Martin McDonagh has other interesting uses for that background.

After this, I figured I might wind up checking out the Marvel movie on one of the city's premium screens, just to avoid internet spoilers, but it turned out that Twitter was inward-focused enough to put that in my face and I wound up not doing so. Then it was back home, and doing work and such.

The Banshees of Inisherin

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2022 in Savoy Cinema (Dublin) #7 (first-run, DCP)

There are many delightful things about The Banshees of Inisherin, but what makes the whole thing especially delicious is that, while the film reveals more the closer one looks at it, the filmmakers are well aware that one's commitment to art is not helped by pretense or snobbery. It's tremendously entertaining as well as dense, and doesn't treat genius as an excuse for a lousy attitude.

Is Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) a genius? Maybe not, but he's serious about his craft as a fiddle player, easily the best on this particular member of the Aran Islands, and he's come to decide that doing so means cutting friend Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) out of his life. Pádraic isn't a bad fellow, even if he can be unpleasant after a few too many drinks, but he's no intellectual and Colm figures spending so much time with him prevents him from doing and being more. Pádraic can't really comprehend this - hanging out with the dimmer-but-also-amiable Dominic (Barry Keoghan), who has a pretty serious crush on Pádraic's book-smart sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) isn't the same - so he keeps trying to reconnect. Colm then delivers an ultimatum: Leave him alone, or he'll start cutting off his own fingers, even if that would make playing the fiddle all but impossible.

Banshees could have been set during a number of periods, but writer/director Martin McDonagh sets it during the Irish Civil War, which split the country between those unwilling to even temporary compromise on their goal of a unified, independent Ireland and those willing to accept more gradual change. This doesn't exactly map to Colm and Pádraic, the latter in particular, but it's an interesting place to start, especially once McDonagh starts connecting to other things, such as how Siobhan's opportunities will come from leaving the island. This is a time where things should be triumphant, and yet this little society is tearing itself apart by the seams: Friendships that were perhaps a matter of circumstance are fraying or violently unwinding, people with power, like Dominic's father Peadar, are now homegrown rather than coerced monsters, emigration is depriving the community of some of their best and brightest, and painting the red British post boxes green doesn't cover the place's real problems.

There's more to a movie than just setting up a metaphor, and it's the performances here that may be the most metaphor, most noticeably with McDonagh re-uniting his In Bruges stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, who make hitting a couple of tricky marks look almost effortless: For Farrell, it's a sort of well-meaning foolishness that doesn't quite put Pádraic at a remove from the audience, constantly making the clear wrong decision in a way that the audience can still emphasize with. The trick is to see how Colm and others could find him tedious and frustrating without making him a nuisance or the object of pity. There's often an interesting comparison to Barry Keoghan's Dominic, who is genuinely dim (compared to how Pádraic is often described as "dull"), but more pure-hearted, such that one might feel bad about finding him irritating.

Gleeson, meanwhile, has to make Colm a bit more opaque; there are occasional comments about how this is maybe not the first time he's sunken into a self-destructive depression, but McDonagh doesn't lay much more than that out directly. Instead, Colm is a mass of interesting contradictions, having lost all patience for Pádraic but not only not wishing him any ill will, but jumping in to defend Pádraic when it comes to blows. There's this sort of deep misery about his place in the world that gets pushed back when he has a chance to create. In a modern setting, people would talk about his mental health, but here he knits it together into a character whose behavior might not be consistent even if his thoughts are. One might expect Kerry Condon's Sibhan to be a kindred spirit, whatever is misfiring in his brain seems to be working in hers; she, perhaps, hasn't internalized the idea that difficulty or dangerous eccentricity correlates with genius to the point where she indulges it like Colm does (and aside from all that, McDonagh allows her to be sharp and risible enough to totally fall into the cliché of the woman who keeps the three men with their various forms of immaturity in line).

Condon and Gleeson get the more enjoyably chewy bits of dialogue to work with, the sort that reminds a viewer that McDonagh first found success as a playwright, although a big part of what works is that their lines mix well with the more plain-spoken lines given to Farrell and Keoghan, making many scenes a mix of considered explanation and sputtering confusion. McDonagh and his collaborators do lots of nifty things with the setting to help it tell the story: While the Súilleabháin home is snug, it's not oppressive, while Colm's cottage has the dimensions for two floors but isn't divided that way, managing to feel cluttered but with a great big empty space inside, on top of having no neighbors but being near a crossroads. One can occasionally see gunfire from the war on the shore, both far-off and unsettlingly close, and McDonagh quietly cranks what starts as an odd situation up to a surprisingly tense one by the finale.

Not that all this is exactly news; Banshees is one of the most anticipated and well-liked movies of the year, and the biggest surprise is how it hits its marks not just squarely but comfortably. Like Decision to Leave, it's an awards contender where one almost feels the need to point out that it's not just impressively constructed but a very funny movie that goes down easily.

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