The Banshees of Inisherin – A Tragic Comedy Entwined Within a Historical Allegory With the Helpful Addition of a Donkey to Die For

Of all Martin McDonagh’s directorial efforts thus far, and The Banshees of Inisherin is the British-Irish filmmaker’s fourth thus far, his latest work is perhaps the one most in need of repeated viewings. 

Obviously, In Bruges is also worth revisiting, but more for the simply astounding nuanced performances from its two leads, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson (who return for The Banshees of Inisherin), and likewise, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri has moments that absolutely need to be considered methodically, but McDonagh’s current release needs another viewing just to be able to dive a little deeper into the significance of each character as they pertain to the apparent historical allegory he has put together. 

Accessible But With Deeper Significance

If you missed the movie when it was on its cinematic run, you can now certainly catch it on the small screen and read movie streaming reviews to ascertain where best to watch it, and it’s a movie that is perhaps more accessible than earlier McDonagh movies due to the fact that it’s, on the surface at least, a very simple tale, albeit one that is dark once you get stuck into the more profound significance that is at play. 

The story is set on a fictional island, Inisherin, that sits off the coast of mainland Ireland and tells the story of two men who, at least on the face of it, are old friends. The premise is so simple that it’s almost genius. 

After we see Colin Farrell’s character (Padraic) amiably sauntering across the island, going about his ‘dull’ existence when it becomes clear that his good friend, Colm, played by the consistently bankable Gleeson, wants nothing to do with him.

This set-up is made clear from the get-go and is so matter-of-factly played out by Colm that it is instantly jarring. 

“I just don’t like you no more” is the reasoning given by fiddle-playing Gleeson, a line that Farrell attempts to process and take on board before responding, “But you liked me yesterday.” 

Of course, we learn the apparent reasoning behind this change of heart from Colm, but in a way, it’s not all that relevant. The point is the two friends are no longer on speaking terms, and the fact that Colm has stated that should Padraic continue to bother him, he’ll cut off his own fingers is the ‘hook’ of the piece and instantly takes this comedy in a black direction.

Civil War Allegory

The film is set in 1923 when the Irish civil war is, to put it mildly, heating up, and McDonagh has written and directed an allegory where his two leads are effectively playing the part of the two warring sides, one being the Irish Free State and the other being the Irish Republican Army.

Every now and then, we hear explosions and gunfire from the mainland, just a short boat ride away, and this breaks the apparent peace that exists on Inisherin, though even the peace on this picturesque island is clearly sat just above a simmering violence that appears to be close to eruption.

Over the course of the movie, we are introduced to strong supporting characters, portrayed superbly, with the performances of Kerry Condon, as Farrell’s ambitious sister Siobhan, who is stuck in a rut and seeking an escape and Barry Keoghan as the island simpleton Dominic, very nearly stealing the show.

Indeed it is a scene played out between these two that is arguably the nadir of the entire production when Dominic’s aimless advances are shot down by Siobhan in a way that is both heartfelt and shattering and is in itself saying something about their respective parts in the almost operatic melodrama that is played out on Inisherin.

Then There’s Jenny

Once you understand what McDonagh is attempting to say between the lines, every character extols a deeper meaning, and that even includes those on the island that are not played by humans.

The one apparent ray of light for Padraic, especially once his sister has left the island, comes in the form of Jenny, the donkey, and their relationship is a beacon of hope, but suffice to say, and without wanting to provide any spoilers, things don’t end well.

The film is, of course, at times hilarious, and the acting is top-notch, but this isn’t a comedy in the traditional sense of the word. There is always a sense of foreboding, it’s there in almost every scene and shot, and the study of loneliness that is felt by everyone on Inisherin is a very thought-provoking one.

Of all McDonagh’s movies, this effort is one that really leaves you asking questions, and it’s a film that lives long in the memory. As always, the dialogue is sharp, understated, and sparse, nothing that is said in the movie isn’t necessary, and the soundtrack is also extraordinary.

It was cruelly snubbed at the Oscars, where it failed to win in any of its eight nominated categories, but it’s a movie that offers a great deal more than most films released in recent years. 

The center of the piece is, of course, the interplay between Farrell and Gleeson, and while this was something expertly choreographed by the pair in their previous encounter during In Bruges, here they take things to the next level whether even what is not being said is quite clearly being articulated by the two, who clearly are very comfortable together, even if their characters are quite clearly not. 

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