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"The Banshees of Inisherin" mixes Gaelic folklore with a dramedy about friendship

 Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office
Audrey Kupferberg
Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office

Fourteen years ago, Irish actors Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson teamed up with writer/director Martin McDonagh to make a dark comedy about two hitmen who lie low in the atmospheric Belgian town of Bruges after they make a major mistake during a crime. McDonagh’s script creates laughs from his characters’ misery, and that film, In Bruges, has provided superb entertainment since its release in 2008.

Now, in The Banshees of Inisherin, the creative trio has made another dark comedy that presents a story of despair and perhaps even insanity. Its main theme about the ending of a lifelong friendship has many dramatic turns, times when the viewer feels only sadness over the unfolding events and other moments when one laughs out loud.

Longstanding friends Colm and Padraic live on an island off the coast of Ireland. It’s early spring, 1923. One afternoon at 2 pm, as is his custom, Padraic heads to the local public house to have a drink with his buddy and enjoy a chat. This day, however, Colm doesn’t want to share a beer or a stout or any conversation. He is huffy even to be seeing Padraic. Colm has decided that life is too short to spend any more time with his now former friend. Instead of what he calls “dull talk,” he will focus on important things, such as playing his fiddle and composing music.

When Padraic, a nice guy, persists in continuing their friendship, Colm announces that he will cut off one of his own fingers each time his former friend tries to be with him.

That’s the gist of the plot, but there’s more. The eccentrics on the island add excitement to an already electrifying story. In addition to a snarly policeman and his village idiot son, a foul-mouthed priest, and Padraic’s self-educated sister, there is an old woman who just might be a banshee – a female spirit of Gaelic folklore whose wails are omens of an imminent family death.

McDonagh tells a story that is so different, so startling, that many viewers will be emotionally disarmed. There is both shock and delight to be found in The Banshees of Inisherin.

McDonagh’s direction is strong and authoritative. He is so appreciative of his location, of the beauty of the Irish countryside, its blue sea and green fields, even a rainbow at the very start. The locations are intoxicating. The detail paid to the colors, the farm animals including a miniature donkey named Jenny, the folk music, the ancient homes with their thatched roofs and modest furnishings, even the authentic-looking handknit sweaters which were made by one elderly man...

McDonagh grew up in London as well as Ireland. His parents are Irish, and he has a dual citizenship. His first six plays take place in or near County Galway.

The thematic nature of The Banshees of Inisherin, told in such an extreme manner, is brittle. A guy suddenly breaks off a friendship and threatens to self-mutilate. C’mon, that’s a pretty farfetched tale.

This film’s storyline could have crumpled like an Irish scone… and I do not mean that remark as a knock against Irish scones…

Instead, it’s an intoxicating film. The Banshees of Inisherin has received nods and wins at many awards ceremonies. It is available on DVD and Blu-ray and is streaming on a number of sites.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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