A lot of things make “The Banshees of Inisherin” wonderful. First up is the script by playwright/director Martin McDonagh, who caught everyone’s attention with the crime comedy “In Bruges” in 2008.
Then there’s the gorgeous cinematography that captures the stark beauty of the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland — a setting for two of McDonagh’s earlier plays, “The Cripple of Irishman” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.” Production designer Mark Tildesley and director of photography Ben Davis deserve lots of accolades.
And then you have wonderful performances by the cast, including Brendan Gleeson as the artistically inclined Colm. Barry Keoghan as the dim Dominic and Kerry Condon as the put-upon book lover Siobhan.
But the key to “Banshees” success is the remarkable performance by Colin Farrell as Padraic, Siobhan’s brother.
Padraic is something of a man-child. He’s simple and happy-go-lucky. He loves his pet miniature donkey, Jenny, and he often sneaks her into the house he shares with Siobhan. He tends to a pony, a couple or cows and a calf, and sells milk to the local storekeeper and busybody.
He leaves every afternoon to walk to the home of his best friend, Colm, who accompanies him to the local pub, where they talk and where Colm plays his fiddle. It appears that they are lifelong friends, although Colm is older.
But as “Banshees” begins, something strange happens to Padraic. He knocks on Colm’s door, and Colm refuses to answer. So Padraic continues to the island’s only pub, run by Jonjo (Pat Shortt). And when Padraic enters the pub, Jonjo looks up and asks “Is Colm not with you? Sure, he’s always with you.” And so begins a tale of friendship betrayed that will have ripple effects for everyone on the fictional island of Inisherin.
It should be pointed out that the rift on Inisherin in 1923 mirrors the rift that’s spreading on the mainland in 1920s Ireland. As the press notes explain, the Irish Civil War was waged from 1922 to 1923, after the establishment of the Irish Free State, which created an entity in one-half of the country that was separate from the United Kingdom. Two opposing groups, the pro-Anglo Irish Treaty provisional government and the anti-treaty Irish Republican Army, fought for dominance.
As McDonagh says of his movie, “It’s a story where a tiny little war is waging between two fellows at the same time as a bigger one is happening over there.”
So, what’s causing the war between Padraic and Colm? Padraic certainly wants to know what’s going on. At first, he is just baffled. And then he assumes it must be a joke. And then he realizes it’s not a joke. And Colm tells him so: “I don’t want to be your friend no more.”
But why? Padraic asks. And Colm says that he probably has only about 12 more years to live, and he wants to leave a legacy. And he wants that legacy to be a new tune on his fiddle. He wants to create and spend time with his fiddling buddies — and he says he doesn’t have time for Padraic anymore.
Padraic, however, doesn’t consider this a valid answer. Can’t they still hang out together? And then Colm says something quite mean that breaks Padraic’s heart. He says that Padraic is simply dim and unworthy of his company.
Farrell captures the sadness of Padraic with a hang-dog look that makes his sister Siobhan wonder whether it’s time to leave the island for the mainland. She sees the broken-heartedness of Padraic, and she is especially irritated that Colm called him dim. To Siobhan, everyone on the island, including Colm, is boring and somewhat dim.
She confronts Colm at the pub one day, and so does Padraic. This infuriates Colm, and he makes a threat that is almost unbelievable. No spoilers here. Just know that McDonagh often takes his characters down extreme lanes.
Farrell has never been better than in “Banshees.” He’s both sad and funny, vulnerable and strong, and his boyish looks don’t detract from his charm.
He’s a shoo-in for a best-actor nomination at the Oscars, if there’s any justice in the world. Then again, this is an Irish story.
Just a final note: You might be wondering about the title of the film. It’s the title of the songs for the fiddle that Colm is composing. The banshee is also the ghostly figure in Irish mythology who wails at night to foreshadow someone’s death.
In “Banshees,” her name is Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), who acts like a sinister watchdog on the island. Padraic runs from her every time he sees her in the distance. You probably would, too.
“Banshess” opens in Austin on Friday, Oct. 28.