The sight of a man strolling down a lane way, along a glorious beach cliff, with no less than a rainbow at his back, ought to arouse suspicion in anyone who has outgrown Disney. And those suspicions will not be denied, within the dark, comedic fable that is The Banshees of Inisherin.
I will start by saying that I can kind of hate movies that are called dark comedies, because the bad ones attempt to mask bad taste in supposed sophisticated humor. This film is the good kind, the kind which juxtaposes life’s incongruities in a funny way. Spoilers follow so stop here if you must.
One of the main characters in the movie, according to author Martin McDonagh, is the lushly beautiful fictional island of Inisherin. Inish is Irish for island and Erin, is well… you know that one. So, the actual filming was done between the Aran Island, Inish Mór and Achill Island, combining to create the magical little island that is Inisherin.
Geographically, it sits like an Aran Island, off the West Coast. The rural beauty plays a strange role, it is an exquisite tyrant of sorts. The island feels so claustrophobic and cut-off, the laneways and walls seal it in. The narrowness, smallness of the place, almost forcing intimacy.
Padraic (Colin Farrell) attempts to dive behind a wall to avoid the “banshee,” who sees the whole charade and walks around the wall to speak to him anyway. Privacy and peace of a kind are impossible. What do you do in a small place, knowing, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that none of us are for all markets?
The primary conflict in the movie comes from Colm’s (Brendan Gleeson) decision that he just can no longer bear the company of his former best friend, Padraic. The simple Padraic is quite a bit younger and not the intellectual equal of Colm. Colm has decided that he has wasted enough of his time.
On the literal level, this decision seems a little incomprehensible, but as Colm says, is it a sin not to be nice? That is a good question in Ireland.
A strong argument could be made that it is indeed a sin not to be nice in Ireland. Few things stir the local pot more than someone not being nice.
While Irish hospitality is a wonderful thing when you are visiting Ireland, the customs and manners can be exhausting on a day-to-day basis. You cannot plan much because you will surely be interrupted, and should a visitor arrive, then a visit is to be had. There is a case to be made, that along with whisky, friendliness, is one of the inventions that keep the Irish from running the world.
The film’s feisty lassie is left to Kerry Condon’s Siobhan. She has the quick temper; vintage Maureen O’Hara but is much more. She is world-weary, lonely, bored and modern. She sees above the nonsense and pettiness and is frustrated that she has to participate. She is a spinster, not for lack of offers, but for the lack a decent one.
Siobhan is missing out on everything and feels that she has to leave the island to make a life for herself. She does, and her letter home to Padraic is not sentimental, but talks about how her life has opened up since she left. She urges him to join her, and you can see as he reads it that he hasn’t a notion.
The purported village idiot, Dominic (Barry Keoghan) is more of a Shakespearean fool. Like those characters, he speaks in a childish, naïve way, framed with bouts of profundity. He carries on, seemingly immune to the indignities island life sends his way, until he does not.
He is the mirror that reveals who the characters are, since everyone is unguarded with the simpleton that they believe him to be. He surprises Siobhan using the word touché, which Padraic doesn’t know. He is the island dog that everyone kicks, but he is kind regardless and has a poignant hopeful quality about him.
Irish Civil War
The Irish Civil War is in the background all the time, with many thinking that is what the movie is really about. It is a fair assumption since that event turned neighbor against neighbor overnight. For any as confused about that period of Irish history as I have been, almost as soon as the Irish became independent and had a truce with England, they fought each other.
The two factions were essentially the Pro-Treaty side, which was willing to accept the truce, including the partition of the North with the hope of getting back, and the Anti-Treaty side, which said, no way, we want all of the island, free, right now thank you.
The metaphor fits nicely, two friends together until one random day, there are sides with loss inflicted because of the division. The islanders look across the sea at the occasional smoky fury of the conflict and are indifferent and befuddled by it.
No matter, Padraic and Colm are two very different people. Colm’s cottage faces the sea, and is full of the souvenirs of a man who has travelled. Padraic crosses off the days on his calendar, in his plain cottage, stuffing down his loneliness and depression, attempting to look the happy lad.
Colm is wrestling with mortality and legacy, wondering how niceness compares with a piece of music that just might outlive him. Yet in his flight from the smothering of polite society, he sacrifices his capacity to do more with his art, and in the process, turns the simple, emotional world of Padraic on its head.
Colm does not seem to mind the sacrifice. In his mind he is free and, maybe finding a way to entertain himself.
As for the banshees? Colm says he used the word because he like the “sh” sound. If a banshee foretells death, there is a character in Mrs. McCormack who functions that way and enjoys every minute of it. She is way more crone than sylph. She is negative to her core, licking her lips with pleasure recalling others’ troubles as she haunts the film.
The movie will undoubtedly walk away with a few Oscars. One of the consequences of that will be more Yank fanny packs making their way to Ireland looking for Inisherin.
But isn’t it refreshing? A movie, which has zero Spandex, the only nudity is male, and the women wear shawls, is making money! Watch it one time for the scenery, the story and the fabulous dialogue. Watch it again to see what you think. Your interpretation of the film is just that. But isn’t nice to have a story complex enough to think about?
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, travel and spending time with her dog, cats and fish. She can be contacted at ol*****@ic****.com.