The Banshees of Inisherin – Film Review

I finally caught up with this movie in which writer-director Martin McDonagh reunites Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in a quirky, sad and darkly hilarious tale about severed friendship on a remote island.

I was already excited about this movie as a big fan of In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I became even more so after finding out that it was filmed on Inishmore, an island off the west coast of Ireland I visited on the Irish leg of my big European trip in 2019. If anything, Inishmore looks even more stunning onscreen doubling for the fictional island of Inisherin, with the austere but beautiful cinematography, moody sunsets and evocative aerial shots of the green flats criss-crossed by miles and miles of stone fences.

In 1923, this isolated corner is a peaceful haven for its inhabitants, who are occasionally startled by the sounds of the Irish civil war raging across the water. Though he doesn’t know it yet, the gunshots and explosions are about to become a suitable background for Pádraic (Colin Farrell), a happy-go-lucky dairy farmer who lives with his bookish sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon). Every day, he calls on his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) for a drink at the pub… but one day, Colm ignores the knocking and just sits in his chair, smoking. When Pádraic mentions Colm’s strange behaviour to Siobhán, she says jokingly that maybe Colm just doesn’t like him no more.

Siobhán’s joke turns out to be horribly true. We quickly come to see that the two friends are a study in contrasts; Pádraic is a simple, amiable soul, perhaps not the sharpest tool in the shed but basically kind and decent, while Colm is an intense thinker who plays and composes music. It seems that, depressed at the time slipping away, Colm has decided that he has better things to do in the years left to him than spend hours in the company of a dull, limited man. He makes it clear to Pádraic that he doesn’t want his company or conversation, and makes a solemn and grisly promise to show just how serious he is: every time Pádraic talks to him, Colm will cut off one of his own fingers.

It seems like a wildly disproportionate reaction, but there’s just something about the insular, haunting setting of the island that makes heightened emotions and absurd gestures believable in a movie that’s both grounded in reality and feels like a macabre Irish folktale. Poor Pádraic simply cannot fathom his friend’s sudden change of heart or leave things be, and so this unusual break-up story gets very grim indeed.

With what at first seems like a low-stakes story, I enjoyed the movie mainly thanks to McDonagh’s mastery of dialogue and Irish humour, where bleakness is never too far away from the laughs, and the endlessly watchable chemistry between Gleeson and Farrell. Though he treats his friend harshly, even cruelly, Gleeson brings such world-weariness and despair to his character that it’s impossible to dislike Colm; you even sympathise with his desire to be left the hell alone. And just like in his previous film with McDonagh, Banshees makes a wonderful use of Farrell’s heart-melting vulnerability. He’s probably his career-best here playing a man whose intrinsic good nature is slowly eroded by resentment and obsession.

There’s also a couple of fantastic supporting performances: Kerry Condon, who I remembered as Octavia from Rome TV series, is a revelation as Pádraic’s smart, sensible sister who has her own despair eating at her. Barry Keoghan is alternately hilarious and tragic as Dominic, the official biggest idiot on the island who brings chaos everywhere he goes. I also would like to give a shout out to a couple of adorable pets that play a significant part in the story of their owners: Pádraic’s miniature donkey that would rather hang about the house, and Colm’s cute dog.

Despite the smaller, more intimate scale, the melancholy and wit of The Banshees of Inisherin, its observations on friendship in its twilight and its shocking moments of violence lingered with me long after the movie was over. I hope it’s not the last film for the Gleeson and Farrell double act.

P.S. I was a little concerned about listening to Irish accents without subtitles, but I did just fine – maybe I’ve watched enough of Derry Girls to acclimatise.

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