The opening scene visually captures the fields of Inisherin from above, the latter arranged and organised in perfect symmetry, seducing the audience into an apprehension of what appears to be a peaceful paradise. The synergy of cinematographer Ben Davis and production designer Mark Tildesley evokes a nostalgic sense of an idealised pre-industrial island life.
The film relays the story of local musician Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), who has abruptly decided to stop talking to his friend, small time farmer Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell). Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh’s distinctive costume design presents the rather innocent dairy farmer Pádraic in a traditional woollen Aran sweater, while a long overcoat and cowboy hat is a well-chosen accoutrement for the sullen and tetchy character of Colm, a musician with his fingers on a different pulse from Pádraic.
When we see Pádraic calling down to Colm to go for their usual lunchtime drinks in the pub, Colm tells Pádraic he doesn’t like him anymore. When pressed as to why this is the case, Colm admits that he thinks Pádraic is “dull.” Pádraic’s educated and strong-willed sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) comes to the defence of her brother, telling Colm that Pádraic has always been “dull,” while referring to all the men on the island as “all feckin boring.” Colm said that he wants to focus on making music rather than waste his time drinking and listening to Pádraic talk about such topics as the latter’s pony’s poo.
This deceivingly elementary plot produces a nail-biting ripple effect of hilarity and horror in equal measure. Things take a sinister turn when Colm threatens that if Pádraic does not leave him alone, he will take a pair of shears and cut off one of his own fingers. When he cuts off one of his fingers and throws it at Pádraic’s front door, he proves that his threat to cut himself was not a joke. This finger is one of the ones he needs to play the fiddle.
This is McDonagh’s world; he is a seasoned playwright who can work with the bare minimum while also seamlessly transferring Beckettian tension and absurdity from stage to screen. To recall the old adage that comedy is trauma plus time, I felt McDonagh’s execution of comic timing, in conjunction with Mikkel Nielsen’s skilled editing and pacing, relieved the intensity of certain scenes with masterly aplomb.
Why Colm is going to such extremes only adds to the macabre mystery as it lures others on the island into their drama to form new splits and allegiances. McDonagh introduces a political subtext by overlaying the squabbles on Inisherin with the 1922/23 Irish Civil taking place on the mainland in a way that may make audiences think of the socialist playwright Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock, also set against the background of the Civil War while mainly focusing on the ordinary lives of those confronted with poverty in a slum like Dublin tenement.
In McDonagh’s film, though, we hear occasional gunfire and bombs from the mainland; this never really distracts us from the plight of the characters for very long, albeit the local policeman Peadar Kearney (Gary Lydon), an abusive bully who insults Siobhán verbally and punches Colm out for publicising his violence against his son Dominic (Barry Keoghan), has been called to the mainland to oversee an execution. Unable to remember who is executing who between the Free Staters and the IRA and joking about whether it matters.
The rivalry between Colm and Pádraic on Inisherin could be interpreted as a metaphor for not only the impact of war on ordinary working-class people, but one of the defining characteristics of the Irish Civil War was the destructive severing of not only friends and communities, but also families, with some brothers fighting on opposing sides. The residue of the Civil War divide is still alive in Irish politics today. Poignantly at the end of the film with Pádraic, eventually eaten up by entrenched rancour by the events between them, he tells his former friend, Colm, that not moving on is a good thing.
Other characters also play pivotal roles in propelling the plot forward and introducing themes of not only folklore with Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), a short, elderly woman dressed in a black shawl and resembling a banshee who haunts those around her by foretelling a death on the island, but another notable supporting performance was Barry Keoghan as Dominic, arguably the most vulnerable but courageous character in the film, and one whose moral But it is in the confession box with the priest (David Pearse) that Colm is confronted with the consequences of his erratic actions. The priest pointed out that, while not talking to his friend is not a sin, he claimed it is “not very nice.” This does not strike a harmonious chord with Colm, as he admits that finishing his song “The Banshees of Inisherin” in order to be “remembered” is more important to him. He later tells Pádraic, when speaking of Mozart, that “nobody from the seventeenth century was remembered for being nice.” Pádraic dismisses that theory when he claims he doesn’t even know who Mozart is in the first place.
Colm’s dismissal of niceness is a dig at Pádraic, who, given how Colm treats him, is constantly praised by other islanders for being nice and one of the good guys. There are echoes of Nietzsche here, as he also criticised those who considered themselves good because they had no claws.
While Siobhán attempts to put Colm in his place by correcting him that Mozart was part of the 18th and not the 17th century, the madness of Inisherin finally gets to her as she leaves for the mainland but fails to persuade her brother to follow her. Further irony ensues for Colm, who is utterly compelled to act in ways that are not only harming others but also maiming himself when he cuts off the rest of his remaining four “claws” on his playing hand and again throws them at Pádraic’s door. Pádraic changes his tune about trying to persuade Colm to be friends again when he finds that one of his animals has choked to death on one of the severed fingers.
This is not only a turning point for Pádraic, but when talking with the priest, Colm feels that self-mutilation should not be a sin but killing an animal should be. A cadence of sorts arrives near the end of the film when we witness Colm and Padraig’s disdain for each other being surpassed by their concern for each of their animals.
We get an inkling of Colm’s deeper struggles when the priest asks him in confession about his fluctuating despair. Despair in Colm’s context we suspect is not so much a loss of hope but could be more of a Kierkegaardian sense of despair where there is a struggle with one’s identity.
The Banshees of Inisherin certainly raises existential questions concerning identity, and it could be McDonagh’s most personal film to date as a British-Irish director, born and raised in London by Irish parents who, in the end, returned to their native Ireland, leaving Martin and his brother in London. There are definite themes of geographical entrapment in Banshee’s and allusions to how our very identities are shaped by not only past traditions or those around us but by events at a grander geopolitical level, however distant they may seem. But the greatest reflection in the film might be about belonging, and the ultimate question it poses is: where do we really belong when we feel we are not welcome? Although set in 1923, The Banshees of Inisherin resonates today more than ever with the shifting tectonic plates activated by Brexit, which continues to pose the question of belonging for many Irish and British.
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