Last week, I finally managed to catch up with Martin McDonagh’s debut play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, at the Traverse Theatre – and now here’s his latest cinematic offering, which itself started life as a play, the projected third piece in his Aran Islands trilogy. For various reasons, McDonagh wasn’t happy with it in its original form, so it was never released. He should be delighted, however, with the critical reception for The Banshees of Inisherin, where important voices have been talking about potential Oscar nominations.
It’s 1923 and the titular island is a remote and inaccessible place. Across the water on the mainland, a civil war is raging and, even from a distance, the sound and fury can be overheard. But here there’s precious little to occupy the inhabitants, who spend their days trying to grub some kind of living from the soil. Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) lives with his sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), and he’s a man who likes to follow a routine. Every day at 2 pm, it’s his custom to call on his best friend, Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), and accompany him to the local pub for a couple of pints.
He’s understandably shocked when one day Colm announces that he doesn’t want to be friends with Pádraic anymore. Colm claims that his regular drinking companion is the dullest man on the island and that he wishes to devote the rest of his life to writing his music. Pádraic is never to speak a word to him again – and, if he does, there will be terrible consequences…
Pádraic is hit for six by this announcement and haplessly tries to rescue the situation – but he has no idea how far Colm is prepared to go in order that his edict is followed.
Banshee’s theatrical origins are evident from the opening scenes and it’s clear that here is a piece that could work very effectively on stage, though the beautiful rural settings do help to open the story up to wider horizons. McDonagh’s ear for absurdist black humour has rarely been better and the plot, which sounds slight on paper, is filled with fascinating nuance. McDonagh has plenty to say about the insular psyche of island communities, an unforgiving world where everyone knows everyone else’s business and is happy to discuss it in public. Both Farrell and Gleeson make the most of their acting reunion, fourteen years after In Bruges, though I would suspect Farrell’s performance as the vulnerable Pádraic is the most Oscar-worthy of the two. Both Condon and Barry Keoghan (as, respectively, Siobhan and the tragic Dominic) may be worthy of ‘best supporting’ nods.
The Banshees of Inisherin is a beautifully observed contemplation of the thankless futility of human existence. Colm is stubborn and self-aggrandising, locked in hopeless dreams of being remembered after his death. Pádraic, meanwhile, is incapable of dealing with anything that compromises his preferred schedule.
Only Siobhan has the courage to change her life, but even that simple act – it turns out – has dark consequences.