THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN – Review by Jennifer Green

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The Irish film The Banshees of Inisherin has hit many critics’ top 10 lists and led the Golden Globe nominations earlier this month with a whopping eight nods, including among them best film (musical or comedy), best actor in the same genre for Colin Farrell, best supporting actor and actress for Brendan Gleeson, Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon, and best direction and screenplay for Martin McDonagh.

If that alone isn’t a resounding success for a dialogue-heavy film set on an island off the coast of mainland Ireland in 1923, what is?

Categorized as a “musical or comedy,” Banshees is indeed laugh-out-loud funny at some of its more absurd moments. But it’s a dark humor that can almost make you feel bad about laughing once you realize just how tragic the characters and events McDonagh has scripted are. Their horizons are as limited as the view from their island, where an endlessly overcast sky vanishes into a grey sea.

The austerity and isolation of the setting also drive much of the characters’ behavior. And just across the channel, on the mainland, shots can be heard as two sides wage battle in the country’s Civil War, a conflict which the characters seem to feel is pointless and which the viewer comes to regard as analogous to the inexplicable fight arising between the film’s two protagonists.

One fine day, Colm (Gleeson) announces to his younger buddy and daily drinking mate Pádraic (Farrell) that he no longer likes him. Not just that, but he won’t be joining Pádraic at the pub anymore and he doesn’t want Pádraic even speaking to him. Pádraic is confused by this sudden announcement and tries to clear things up, but this only makes Colm angrier. Pronouncing he just wants some peace and to play as much fiddle music as he can in his dwindling years, Colm threatens to cut off his own fingers one by one if Pádraic won’t leave him alone.

Of course, Pádraic can’t bring himself to do this. Colm is not just Pádraic’s best friend, he’s his only friend. Pádraic doesn’t understand what’s changed; it’s incomprehensible in his life of little to no variation from day to day. Colm’s self-mutilation, perhaps like Ireland’s, is inevitable. What starts as an almost comical and seemingly childish spat quickly turns grisly.

Farrell is phenomenal in the role of Pádraic, a kind but simple, unmarried farmer who lives with his sister, Siobhán, and his beloved miniature donkey, Jenny. He is kind, generous and genuinely perplexed, but his confusion eventually turns to resentment and then wrath. (There are already gifs out there of Farrell as Pádraic, his triangular eyebrows lifted in befuddlement.) Gleeson is also terrific as the flummoxed fiddler, a character whose seeming lucidity gives way to apparent madness.

By contrast, sister Siobhán (a gentle and no-nonsense Condon) is the sanest of the bunch. She’s Pádraic’s caretaker and foil. Her character’s choices offer a modicum of hope for her future. Not so for other locals, who include a macabre old, black-robed woman who predicts deaths to come, and an innocuous young man, the dim-witted Dominic (played by Keoghan), who is abused by his policeman father.

Despite such a mélange of colorful characters, there’s nothing colorful about Inisherin. Filmed in subdued browns and yellows, with a grey sky and a grey-blue sea, the only consistently vivid color in this film is the green, green grass atop the isle’s cliffs. The film’s cinematography is tellingly stunning in its landscapes and muted in its portrait of the island’s inhabitants.

On McDonagh’s invented island, generation after generation of local folk pass their days, entertaining themselves until they “stave off the inevitable,” as Colm puts it, or give in to despair and loneliness, as the priest worries in confessional. All Pádraic asks is some “good, normal chatting.” Not only doesn’t he see the harm in wasting time in “aimless chatting,” but he sees the good. He knows there’s well-being in being together.

For a world still emerging from a global pandemic, that message rings especially true.

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Jennifer Green

Jennifer Green is a regular contributor to Common Sense Media, The Hollywood Reporter, The Seattle Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was Screen International's correspondent in Spain for ten years. She launched the newspaper column and website Films from Afar to curate international films available for home streaming. She has served on film festival juries across Spain and North Africa and teaches journalism and film to university students.