It is April 1923 on Inisherin, a small island off the west coast of Ireland. The Irish Free State had achieved independence from its colonial ruler the United Kingdom the year before. Despite the subsequent civil war nearing its bitter end, explosions can still been seen on the mainland. However, there seems little interest amongst the locals in broader society or its conflicts.
Local farmer Pádraic (Colin Farrell) discovers that his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) no longer likes him and is prepared to take extreme measures to break their bond.
Writer/director Martin McDonagh teamed up with Farrell and Gleeson fourteen years after their In Bruges 2008 triumph, though he had worked wih them individually since. He wrote this latest script for them. Knowing that Brendan is a fiddle player certainly helped.
Martin has a background in live theatre, as a playwright. His time at the Druid Theatre Company in Galway included The Cripple of Inishmaan (1996), set on the real Aran island of that name. Perhaps this helps to explain the film's similarities to a stage play. There is a limited number of indoor settings and the screenplay is heavily dependent on dialogue. I couldn't help thinking of Synge's Playboy of the Western World. Though a Londoner, McDonagh has Irish parents and is a dual British/Irish citizen, with several Irish stories in his plays and films.
Kerry Condon's role as Pádraic's sister Siobhán is a standout performance and Barry Keoghan as lonely, troubled young Dominic flies far above the pitfalls of portraying the stereoptypical 'village idiot'.
Much of the filming of the fictional island took place on Inis Mór, one of the Aran Islands. Its natural limestone pavements, stone fences and spectacular cliffs are a cinemtographer's dream.
The Banshees of Inisherin is a dark story but it contains powerful currents of Irish black humour. An exchange late in the story underlines the context of both this very personal story and the state of Ireland:
Colm: He's dull.Siobhán: But he's always been dull. What's changed?Colm: I've changed. I just don't have a place for dullness in me life anymore.Siobhán: But you live on an island off the coast of Ireland, What the hell are you hoping for, like?Colm: For a bit of peace, Siobhan. That's all. For a bit of peace in me heart like. You can understand that.
Judging by the memorabilia in his home, folk musician/composer Colm had travelled extensively overseas in his younger days. While Siobhán yearns to escape to the wider world.
It may be the roaring twenties in some of the so-called western world, but Ireland is still in the nineteenth century in many resepcts. The island is a place of horse-drawn carts, hurricane lamps and candles. Its priest's confessional and policeman's brutal power have a long way to run yet in the new nation. Perhaps there are no banshees (female spirits who warn of imminent death) left but the local ghoul echoes timeless superstitions.
Anyway, it's well worth the trip back a hundred years.