By Daniel Lammin
9th November 2022

The end of a relationship is one of the most profound and shattering experiences we can experience, whether it be romantic, familial or friendship. Your life is connected so intimately with that of another, until one day, that connection is suddenly severed, leaving you confused and adrift. A hole is left in the space that person once occupied, and no matter how many times such a severing has occurred before, you never know how to fill it. With his fourth feature, 'The Banshees of Inisherin', writer and director Martin McDonagh, acclaimed for his films 'In Bruges' (2008) and 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' (2017), places us at the moment of just such a severing, and offers us a fable of the unravelling that occurs afterwards.

In 1927 on the island of Inisherin off the coast of Ireland, Pádraic (Colin Farrell, 'The Lobster') has found himself in a bit of a pickle. His best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson, 'Paddington 2') has decided he doesn't want to be friends with him anymore. Pádraic has no idea why, and any answer Colm gives only makes him more confused. His sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon, TV's 'Better Call Saul') tries to convince her simple, open-hearted brother to leave it be, but Pádraic struggles to go through his day without Colm. The situation eventually reaches a surprising impasse when Colm makes a shocking threat - every time Pádraic talks to him, approaches him or annoys him in any way, he'll cut off one of his fingers, starting with the hand he needs to play his beloved fiddle. Is Colm bluffing, or is his resolve to end his friendship Pádraic so strong as to mutilate himself?

At first glance, 'Banshees' might seem a significant change of lanes for McDonagh, considering the bombast of his previous films. In truth, this film falls more in line with his writing for the stage; intimate tales of families across Irish history engaged in domestic struggles that speak to greater political turmoil. His plays are able to balance wit, melancholy and violence in an almost singular fashion, and that approach carries to the screen here for the first time, beautifully so. This gentle, gorgeous film beguiles you from the moment it begins, the fictional island of Inisherin possessing an almost mythical, magical quality. 'Banshees' isn't a work of magic realism, but it does feel like the kind of story that has existed forever, a simple tale with clear characters engaged in a playful yet poignant dance of friendship, love and loss.

It is a credit to the strength of this film that you find yourself immediately invested in the relationship between Pádraic and Colm, all the more remarkable in that we never fully see how it functioned in the first place. The premise has so much comic potential, and McDonagh certainly never wastes this, but amongst the shimmering dialogue are pauses of deep sadness and confusion. Pádraic's devastation at losing his friend in such a baffling manner is incredibly palpable, played with enormous sensitivity by Farrell. As the world of the film grows, we see behind its Irish charm to how lonely and isolating a place it is. On the mainland, we hear the bombs and bullets of the Irish Civil War, but Inisherin exists on the edge of the world, not part of or participant in it.


For Pádraic, this provides a bubble of safety. For Colm, it is an opportunity to isolate himself and comprehend what mark he might leave on the world. For Siobhán, that distant shore speaks to her loneliness, of the life she might have had were she not shackled to this island, sharing a home with her adult brother. And for Dominic (Barry Keoghan, 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer'), the simpleton son of the local police officer caught in the riptide of the central conflict, those shores are the bars of his prison, too ill-equipped to ever leave but trapped under the boot of his abusive, tyrannical father. These four souls cling to whatever they can find to give the shape of their lives purpose and meaning - the dependability of a pint at 2pm with a friend or the routines of the farm that dictate the passage of time of a week - but when something throws that dependability off, their lives fall into chaos.

For Pádraic, Colm's rejection of him comes as a betrayal, calling into question his entire relationship with this man. As the situation worsens and Colm's resolve to cut Pádraic from his life becomes crueller and more ridiculous, Pádraic sees his life slipping between his fingers. The pillars that define him are Colm, Siobhán and his donkey Jenny, but without those things, who is he? What is his life? Who does he belong to? By contrast, Colm sees Pádraic's dependency on him as a stone around his neck, a distraction from his music and composition. It's as if Colm is aware of a ticking clock that Pádraic isn't, that time is, in some way, running out, and that any time engaged in inane conversation with Pádraic is time wasted. Colm is reaching for something more, and Pádraic is standing in his way.

This conflict sends ripples through the rest of the community, especially for Siobhán and Dominic. Siobhán is caught in the awkward position of wanting to support her brother but also understanding that Colm has a point. Her own life has fallen into a debilitating cycle, her only escape through the books she reads and re-reads and the random encounters with the various older women of the town who look at her with cruel pity. By contrast, the fissure between Pádraic and Colm offers Dominic an opportunity. Almost an outcast in the town thanks to his bluntness and lack of social awareness, he sees Pádraic as a potential ally, someone to anchor himself to. The result of this, and the extent to which this affects the ecology of Inisherin, destabilises the notion that this town can exist outside of time and history. The conflict between Pádraic and Colm is a microcosmic mirroring of the war occurring across the water, where Irishman fights against Irishman, families and communities pulled apart in pursuit of ideals that only bring about more questions. These men and women are willing to kill and die for what they believe in, just as Colm is willing to sacrifice his fingers and his artistic expression in order to fight for his beliefs, and Pádraic is willing to risk violence to get back the friendship he has so suddenly lost.

At every turn, McDonagh makes the right choices as both writer and director. He has said in interviews that the original screenplay was a lot more action-packed, maybe closer in tone to 'In Bruges', but he had the feeling that there was something more honest hidden in the premise. What we have instead is a careful and sensitive character study that provides ample space for the unsaid, and for the extraordinary cast to fill those spaces with magic. The screenplay crackles with delicious and direct wit, bouncing from one tremendous line or insult to another. Loneliness is such an overwhelming aspect of this film, but at no point does it ever indulge in it. The film simply gets on with what it needs to do, and for the most part, reflects McDonagh's direction. Like the best directors, he knows when to get out of the way, when all he needs to do is create the space for the drama to occur and capture it.

Without a fault, all four of the central performances are astounding. It feels like Colin Farrell is just getting better and better with each film, and his performance as Pádraic is easily one of, if not the best, of his career.

There's such a wonderful synchronicity with every aspect of this film, less about being in balance as much as all the elements listening to one another. Ben Davis' cinematography is ravishing, a beautiful interplay of landscape and light that shapes the visual melancholy with great care. Mark Tildesley summons this almost fairytale Irish town with his gorgeous production design, every piece of furnishing telling a story and evoking a relationship. The same can be said of Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh's beautiful costume design, each garment supporting the actors in the creation of their characters. Topping it off is a beguiling, mysterious and intoxicating score from Carter Burwell, easily his best since 'Carol', supporting the comedy and sadness with a building tension, the threat that something terrible may happen at any moment. When that moment does come, in a fashion McDonagh has long turned into an art, the violence and tragedy of the film cracks wide open, and that clever, funny premise doesn't feel so funny anymore. Suddenly, 'The Banshees of Inisherin' goes from a witty Irish comedy to a matter of life and death, and all you can do is follow the bloody path to see where these four lost souls will find themselves.

Without a fault, all four of the central performances are astounding. It feels like Colin Farrell is just getting better and better with each film, and his performance as Pádraic is easily one of, if not the best, of his career. A lesser actor would have lent too far into his emotional simplicity, but underneath the gorgeous directness of Pádraic is a deep well of sadness, and the beauty of Farrell's performance is the careful manner in which he allows that well to spill over. It would also have been easy for Colm to be a cantankerous grump, but the devastating surprise of Brendon Gleeson's performance is the delicacy with which Colm breaks Pádraic's heart. There's never any doubt that Colm knows and feels for how he is shattering this man, but Gleeson balances his awareness with his conviction that keeps you as an audience on your toes as to who has your sympathies more. In truth, McDonagh isn't interested in making this easy. Sometimes, a break-up isn't the result of histrionics and dramatics, but a sad and sudden end where no one is at fault. McDonagh, Farrell and Gleeson only ask us to sit and watch and feel the waters swirl as they try to navigate this sorry situation with some kind of grace.

Equally devastating is the work from Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan. Pádraic and Colm may be too caught in their plight to be objective, but Siobhán is left to be the voice of reason, trying to get these men to come to their senses. She so desperately wants a life other than what she has, but the idea of leaving her brother and leaving Inisherin seems too impossible. Siobhán is drowning in loneliness on this island, and if she doesn't find a way to escape, Pádraic and Colm may take her down with them. Condon's handling of this struggle is wondrous, commanding every scene she appears in with such intelligence and generosity. And then there's poor Dominic, the kind of character we've so desperately been waiting to see from Keoghan. He moves through his life with such an open heart, open enough to be a nuisance to others but also to make him susceptible to great cruelty. The tragedy of Dominic is that, unlike Siobhán, he accepts the life he has and its inevitability. Perhaps Colm's decision to end his friendship with Pádraic suggests to Dominic that disruption is possible, that the endless cycle of abuse he is caught in might be broken, and that makes his open heart even more in danger of breaking.

In Irish legend, a banshee is a female spirit whose wailing foretells a death to come. Across this gorgeous and gentle film, we feel that wailing, that these lives spinning out of control are heading towards some sort of collapse. The magic of 'The Banshees of Inisherin' is that, when it comes, like a gentle storm from across the water, we have fallen so deeply in love with these characters and thus feel every gust of it. This is such a profoundly beautiful film, crackling with a wit that belies a great humanity. Each frame is carefully crafted by a team of artists operating at the height of their powers, unified by a simple yet shattering story of finding a hand to grip in the darkness, the tragedy of losing that grip and the devastation of realising there may never have been a hand there for you in the first place. You leave wanting to sit in the calmness of its sadness, the echoes of these extraordinary characters ringing in your ears, the weight of their lives heavy in your heart. Ridiculous and witty, beautiful and heartbreaking, we are left enraptured.

Looking for more Brisbane International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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