Has anyone attempted to set Martin McDonagh’s heightened take on Irishness beside Seán Hillen’s acclaimed Irelantis project? Probably not. The Derry artist was doing something different with his deconstruction of picture postcards — weaving in ancient history and contemporary discontent — but one senses a shared interest here in the touched-up John Hinde aesthetic. Perfect thatched cottages. Achingly picturesque seascapes. Colin Farrell even gets to make friends with a miniature donkey. Sadly we can’t turn the film over and write “having a lovely time ... hope Mary got her Inter Cert” on the back.
It takes a while for the upending savagery to set in. After exercises in Americana with Seven Psychopaths (2012) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh returns to the Synge-song Ireland of early plays such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan (there’s a clue in the title), but, at least at first, there is here a tad less brutality on display. Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, reuniting with McDonagh for the first time since In Bruges, play, respectively, Pádraic and Colm, two old pals living listlessly on a Hindeian island off the west coast.
One day, Colm announces he is no longer friends with the younger man. They will sit at different tables in the pub. No pleasantries will be exchanged. The closest Colm comes to an explanation is that he has come to find Pádraic’s drab niceness irritating. “He’s dull, Siobhán,” he says to his erstwhile companion’s sister. “But he’s always been dull,” Kerry Condon, brilliant as a sole voice of sanity, snaps back.
There is a suggestion of allegorical explanation early on. The film takes place in 1923. As red post boxes are painted green, distant “phumphs!” from the mainland remind us the Civil War is raging. McDonagh does, however, wisely leave the connections as faint tendrils. “The Free State lads are executing a couple of the IRA lads,” the bullying policeman says. “Or is it the other way around?” No comment is explicitly made on the rights and wrongs of that conflict, but even the apparent parallel with a tiny local dispute about nothing much risks offending the hyper-alert.
For much of the film, McDonagh cranks back on the profanity — favouring “feck” to Mrs Doyle’s “bad f-word” — and keeps the interactions twinkly. Scrunch up your eyes, listen to only every second syllable and you could imagine yourself in the world of John B Keane. As events progress, however, a threat of self-harm confirms the writer-director’s Gothic instincts are still stubbornly intact. David Pearse’s priest, more of an analyst than a confessor, invites Colm to work through his nihilistic instincts. “How’s the despair?” he asks as if inquiring about gout or sciatica. We end up in an unforgiving place.
Not everybody is on board with McDonagh’s take on romantic stereotypes. Barry Keoghan’s sinuous, spidery turn as the policeman’s unsophisticated son nods towards John Mills in Ryan’s Daughter and (Keane again) John Hurt in the Field. Still more cuteness is afoot with Sheila Flitton’s all-seeing, pipe-puffing wise woman. McDonagh is, however, more in control of his own universe than he was in the occasionally off-key Three Billboards. We are no further from reality than John Ford was with his great westerns (not to mention his own take on a Hindeian Ireland) and, as in those films, the intensified nature of the characters does not impede their ability to connect with universal themes.
Much credit for that must go to an impeccable cast that eats up the succulent dialogue with relish. Pat Shortt and Jon Kenny, the sometime d’Unbelievables, give good cameo. Condon turns a potential scold into the most relatable character on the island. Gleeson and Farrell play off one another in a perfect complement — sulky gorilla opposite enthusiastic puppy — that, as awards season kicks up a gear, has been entertaining premiere audiences on both red carpets and inside the auditorium. At time of writing the best-reviewed film of 2022, The Banshees of Inisherin is on a journey. Who knows where it could end?