"The Banshees of Inisherin": A New Irish Classic
On October 21st of this year, cinemas across the world welcomed one of the year’s most anticipated films to its screens: Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan. On the surface, the film is about a man who decides one day to stop talking to his best friend, but it is also a tale of isolation, masculinity, existentialism and classic Irish temperament.
It’s astonishing how well McDonagh’s film is able to capture Ireland. From the long, sweeping shots of green fields to the way the characters talk to each other, anyone who grew up spending their summers in the Emerald Isle will feel right at home. There are subtle things the characters say like “eejit” or ending every sentence with “like” or “so” that just make the film feel so authentically Irish. I grew up spending my summers in Ireland, from the coast of the Wild Atlantic Way to the city of Limerick, and in this film, I could recognize my childhood summers. In these characters I can see my mother, my grandparents, my aunts, and uncles. I remember feeling giddy in my chair as the film played because I could practically hear my mother and grandmother's voices through the dialogue. Watching the movie in theaters made me feel like I was back on one of those gruelling cliff walks in Kilkee my parents used to drag me on as a kid.
The film is set on the fictional island of Inisherin in 1923, based on Achill Island off the northwest coast of Ireland. While there is much Irish media that deals with the country’s isolation, like the poetry of William Butler Yeats or the books of Frank McCourt, the feeling is increased tenfold by not taking place on the mainland.
Before he was a filmmaker, McDonagh was a playwright, so of course the dialogue is one of the film’s strongest attributes. The way the characters speak is so conversational yet intriguing, especially Keoghan’s character, Dominic, who sometimes borders on being unintelligible. The film relies on dialogue because The Banshees of Inisherin is not a very action-packed movie. However, despite the tranquil, casual nature of the film, it never manages to become boring. From start to finish, there is enough tension in the air to cut with a knife. The Banshees of Inisherin may be a quiet film, but it will still leave audiences on the edge of their seat.
A sure highlight of the film was the subplot around Siobhan, played by Kerry Condon. Siobhan is the smartest person on the island and from what audiences can see, the youngest woman, in her 30's or 40's. She is scrutinized for not being married with children at her age, spending most of her time reading and dreaming about a life outside of Inisherin. Certain parts of Irish society during the 20th century put pressure on young women to grow up and become domestic servants as soon as possible, and Siobhan serves as a reminder that women are capable of so much more. While the focus of the story is more on Farrell and Gleeson’s characters, it was a delight to see Siobhan’s story unfold on screen. There isn’t a single weak performance in The Banshees of Inisherin. It was also very interesting to see this film's portrayal of masculinity, specifically traditional Irish masculinity. Irish culture has always had sort of a "suck it up" kind of attitude when it comes to things like emotions and when paired with the already established expectations for men to be the strong and silent type, you get a culture where people will jump into the Shannon River before going to a therapy session. It was extremely captivating to see the particular standoffishness of Irish culture portrayed on the big screen, and the way McDonagh and company explore these themes is quite interesting. I found myself thinking about the story weeks after I'd seen the film in theaters.
What makes The Banshees of Inisherin so intriguing is that it's about the parts of Irish culture that we're not proud of. The isolation, excessive drinking, lack of education, domestic misogyny, emotional apathy, depression, and of course, toxic masculinity. By creating this film, Martin McDonagh is turning a mirror on himself and the rest of the island, encouraging them to look back at themselves and reflect on which parts of their culture deserve to be celebrated.
In addition to the writing, the film is also beautifully shot. Cinematographer Ben Davis proves himself to be a master of scenic photography as well as suspense, similar to Stanley Kubrick’s cinematographer, John Alcott. There's an abundance of sweeping shots of the beautiful, green, Irish countryside, which pairs extremely well with the editing of Mikkel E. G. Nielsen, who won an Academy Award in 2020 for his work on Sound of Metal.
The Banshees of Inisherin is the first time McDonagh, Farrell and Gleeson have worked together since the 2008 film, In Bruges, which was met with stellar reviews and a laundry list of award nominations upon release. Needless to say, standards were high for their reunion, but it absolutely exceeded expectations. If this film doesn't absolutely clean up this award season, I will be thoroughly surprised. I hope that in the future we get to see more films that are so undeniably and delightfully Irish.