There are few things in the world more precious than a true and lasting friendship. But when it all ends, wounds are torn open, and a huge void is left in our soul. The Banshees of Inisherin, directed by Martin McDonagh, explores a painful theme that happens at least once in every person’s life.
The film takes place on a small island in Ireland, Inisherine, in the 1920s. On the mainland, a brutal civil war is raging between Catholics who want to unite the nation and Protestants who are on the side of the British Crown. The distant roar of gunfire can be heard across Inisherin, but the tiny island is not without its differences. Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) are old pals, who drink together in a nearby pub from 2pm every day. One day, however, Colm breaks off all contact with his former friend and devotes his time to composing and playing the fiddle. Pádraic does not care and continues to pester the embittered and self-absorbed Colm. Colm then threatens to cut off every single finger on his left hand (the hand that holds the strings of the fiddle) and give it to him whenever he dares to harass him. The former friends are at loggerheads, and all seems lost in the relationship between the two men.
The Irish-born Martin McDonagh is known for his unique brand of black humour, which is also evident in his earlier classic film, In Bruges. His new production has plenty of morbid moments, as well, but this time the setting is more ordinary and the plot slower. The tone of the film is most reminiscent of Calvary by the director’s brother, John Michael McDonagh, which is imbued with a sinister atmosphere and mystery.
It should be noted that the Hungarian title (A sziget szellemei – Ghosts of the Island) does not reflect the original content. In Irish mythology, banshees are not mere spirits, but are usually female figures who come to members of the Irish clans as messengers of death and are also the children of the Celtic war god. And Inisherin is in fact a fictional island that does not exist. The name is based on a Gaelic pun meaning “island of Irish soil”. It is this layering and sub-surface symbolism that gives McDonagh’s direction its real acidity, but in The Banshees of Inisherin this feature is deeper and more elaborate than before.
McDonagh places human relationships, friendships, and loneliness in a broader historical context. In his interpretation, the feud between two former drinking buddies is a metaphor for the Irish Civil War, where McDonagh pits brother against brother, and friend against friend. In fact, the statement is true of all armed feuds of mankind, and therein lies the film’s universal, transnational message. This universality is already apparent in the first scenes. As the magnificent cinematography plays out the majestic emerald beauty of the island of Ireland, we hear the Bulgarian song “Polegnala E Todora”. Christian Catholicism mixes with superstitious Celtic fairy tales and folklore, and the banshee is not left idle.
Two very different attitudes emerge in the struggle between the two protagonists. Pádraic is a simple but essentially kind character who does not think about tomorrow and especially not about who will know his name hundreds of years after his death. Colm, on the other hand, is bitter and feels that Pádraic is holding him back from creating something truly remarkable and lasting for future generations. So, he sacrifices his relationship on the altar of art to create a multi-movement musical piece. The composition is called, surprisingly enough, “The Banshees of Inisherin”.
In McDonagh’s plot, the protagonists are completely out of their depth by the end of the film. Padraic’s initial kindness turns into absolute cruelty, while Colm’s self-harming behaviour hinders his own artistic development. The sober rationality is portrayed by Pádraic’s sister, Siobhán (Kerry Condon), while the village idiot Dominic (Barry Keoghan) is portrayed as the intellectually modest but pure-minded and innocent boy. The actors all give masterful performances and, although the plot is rather unrealistic, their acting is not forced, theatrical or contrived.
Yet the real power of this theatrical and slow-moving film lies in its portrayal of a life situation that we all experience at least once. The end of a friendship is always painful, especially when it happens overnight, seemingly without warning. In fact, it is always worth looking behind the circumstances and then the causes and reasons become visible. The friendship between Padraic and Colm was not of great depth, but rather an easy-going friendship. Pádraic’s deepest talking points were about what he found in his donkey’s (sorry, pony’s) droppings. Colm, on the other hand, is of a much more intellectual nature (though he cannot place Mozart’s life a century apart), who is probably suffering from severe depression. This may be the reason why he chooses physical torture and self-mutilation rather than be tormented by his own mind, loneliness, and doubts. A relationship that ends abruptly is dangerous; while the breakup of a meaningful friendship that gradually breaks down can be emotionally monitored, there is no time to do so in the case of an immediate closure. Reactions are thoughtless, extreme, and contrary to common sense. McDonagh puts all this into witty, humorous, yet dark situations and dialogues that even Tarantino would find hard to believe.
Another important aspect of true friendship is altruism. Why does friendship matter? Is it because one wants to feel good about oneself and wants to please the other person? McDonagh portrays perfectly how selfishness, pathological attachment, malice, and cruelty emerge from the otherwise kindly Padraic. The film’s solution is painful, yet simple: it is better to give in and let go. The same insight would help humanity move on from its historical grievances. If only we could. After all, a large part of our history is about not being able to let go of grievances and it always, always begins all over again.
Martin McDonagh, therefore, has once again enriched universal cinema with an unforgettable film, but this time his direction is much quieter and more personal than the 2008 film, In Bruges. Its dark tone, morbid humour and slow pace may not be for everyone, but those who are interested in the Irish director’s style and the mysterious Celtic world will find a connection. Perhaps the film will be a remedy for many viewers to finally let go of their unresolved relationships and finally reconcile their souls. We can pretend to be anyone, and do anything in life, but sooner or later the banshee will knock on everyone’s door.