Saturday 5 November 2022

It's good to talk: "The Banshees of Inisherin"

There is such a thing, I think, as an IFC: an Inherently Funny Conceit. (One example, sourced from recent British TV: parachuting a performer as chaotic as Daisy May Cooper into any quiet Home Counties backwater.)
The Banshees of Inisherin, Martin McDonagh's follow-up to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, proceeds from a C that is very much IF, contending that on a small island off the Irish mainland, in the spring of 1923, two grown men - played by the eminently manly Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell - should suddenly decide not to be friends anymore. No immediate reason cited; the gradual revelation - for these are not men who part easily with their feelings - is that Gleeson's Colm, a man possessed of some minor musical ambition, finds Farrell's farmer Padraig a bit dull to be going forward with. Part of the gag is that, this being as small a place as it is, the two men can't avoid one another, whether they're driving their livestock or necking Guinness at the island's solitary pub. Part of the gag, this being a Martin McDonagh film, is that the pair could scarcely have gabbed at one another any less in their days in one another's good books. 

But then the weather shifts, and a fine mist of melancholy begins to descend over, and saturate, the entire picture. These men have precious little going for them - it may be why the movie opens with Padraig calling on Colm to accompany him to the pub at two in the afternoon - and now they both have one less thing in their favour. That they keep bumping into one another only drives home the sadness of the split: with so few people to talk to already, why choose silence as a default? So it's funny, but also soulful and even painful, a break-up movie in its essence, dense with various forms of rejection, abandonment and severance. Around the halfway point, as the screen fell under an expanse of especially grey cloud cover, the following, somewhat troubling thought formed in my mind: we're all talking about The Banshees of Inisherin's Oscar chances, but has anybody troubled to ask Martin McDonagh if he's doing all right?

Being a critic and not a psychiatrist, I can only offer these observations. The accepted wisdom with McDonagh has long been that he's an immensely gifted screenwriter and theatremaker who merely drifted behind the camera. On the evidence Banshees provides, he's doing a far better job there than, say, Aaron Sorkin for one. You will have to accept that this is almost as cartoonish a vision of Irish life as Three Billboards was of small-town America, or indeed Father Ted was of Ireland's rural extremities; there appears to be a donkey at every window, and a whey-faced simpleton on every footpath. And I'm not sure McDonagh has all the filmmaking basics nailed down just yet. His inserts of Padraig looking across the sea to a mainland being blitzed by the Civil War struck me as more than a touch clunky both visually and editorially, and one lakeside scene is so mangled in its syntax - with repeated violations of the 180° rule - that it threatens to become avant-garde. But he gets the big and small stuff right, which is what matters most here. Some of the hard work was done for McDonagh by his location managers: the film unfolds along a stretch of coast that automatically opens this frame up to glorious sunsets and atmospheric skies. But within that framework, the shots of the characters in their isolation are surreptitiously moving, a form of ongoing portraiture of men wearing themselves away to tiny nubs.

The writing, of course, is McDonagh grand, filling in any gaps with mischievous life. This screenplay will get nominations, maybe even an award or two, just for one midfilm joke about a bread van. (It's that good, although on reflection, I may have creased even harder at a passing instance of gobshite humour. Asked at the dinner table to stop eating with his mouth open, Barry Keoghan's dim delinquent Dominic - source of much of the film's humour, and one of its eventual tragedies - retorts with a peerlessly sarcastic "Where am I now, France?") Banshees benefits from the period-movie handsomeness that comes as standard whenever a creative has started to stockpile hits and gongs - yes, everyone loves the knitwear, with good reason - but it also stands as McDonagh's most forceful attempt yet to conjure up an entire universe from talk alone: you spy that aim most clearly in the scenes around the island's general stores, where the villagers gather to swap "news" - everyday tittle-tattle - and the film further expands its horizons via a relatively simple exchange of lines.

It's good talk, crucially, and a gift to these actors besides: even the minor roles - priest, bartender, the storemistress, whom everyone immediately tells they've no time to talk, because they know she'd talk the hind legs off that donkey - come to be sharply defined by one tongue or another. McDonagh's work with his leads, meanwhile, is nothing short of exceptional. Farrell has long been admired and envied for having two of the best eyebrows in the business. Here, demonstrating just what a skilled actor he's become with age, he does something new with them, pulling them low on his forehead as one would a shower cap, and thereby making Padraig a simpler fellow than any of the actor's previous characterisations: naive, uncomprehending, pathetic. (Even when trying to reverse the power dynamic in one scenario, by attempting to show up the island's abusive policeman in front of his fellow villagers, he gets cuts down verbally for bearing "shite news", and then punched on the nose for his troubles.)

Gleeson looks to be operating in a comfortable mode of gruff stoicism for much of the running time: we might wonder how much Colm is driven by genuine animus for Padraig, and how much of his indifference is a wind-up, something new to do with a pal in a place where there isn't much else to be done. Only in the second half does he let slip the despairing position Colm is in, and the extremes he's prepared to go to so as to get the peace he seeks - at which point the full extent of the film's sadness becomes heartbreakingly clear. Part of that heartbreak is that these men are so good together: fine actors, cheering company, fun to look at, in their little-and-large way. As I said to my own companion as we left the auditorium, I don't think I've laughed so much at a film for some while and still come away feeling so blue, some indication that Banshees is simply more effective at getting under the skin than any previous McDonagh film. It's so effective that it can afford to keep the Civil War at a distance, as a sideshow; approached as parable, Banshees would still have much to say without it. Part of the heartbreak, it pains me to admit, is that, however verbose McDonagh's film gets, all its talk keeps circling an unarguable, lived-in, rather sorry truth: that we men can be funny creatures sometimes. You might be better off with a donkey, all told.

The Banshees of Inisherin is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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