International film awards are by no means a good film guide. And this applies to The Banshees of Inisherin as much as to the rest of them.
The story is set in 1923 on an island off the west coast of Ireland (“Inisherin”—Inis Éireann), filmed in fact on Achill island and Inis Mór in Galway Bay. This setting during the Civil War is made clear early on: throughout the film occasional bombs go off on the mainland, and the local policeman is chuffed to have been asked to participate in some executions—he knows not for which side, nor does he care.
In fact no-one on the island seems to be in the slightest bit interested in the war; amazingly, it is not a topic of conversation, nobody is touched by it, no-one is involved; there are no discussions about the Treaty terms, which had such a momentous impact on post-independence Irish history. And all this on “Ireland Island.”
One can only wonder why. Did Martin McDonagh not wish to offend any side? Might any partisanship have affected awards, and gross profits? Might the film even have caused controversy in Ireland itself? We will never know, because it manages to steer clear of any possible offence caused by reflecting actual sensibilities during this time.
Anybody who wishes to know what these sensibilities were needs to read Liam O’Flaherty, not watch Martin McDonagh. O’Flaherty, native of Inis Mór, not only wrote about the Civil War on the mainland (“The Sniper” and The Martyr) but also refers to the way it affected people in terms of their class on the Aran Islands. And O’Flaherty took part in the battle of Dublin himself (on the Republican side).
Amusingly, the cottage in which Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) lives with his sister Siobhán (the absence of Ó and Ní in their surname troubles an Irish-speaker) is set in Gort na gCapall, O’Flaherty’s home place.
But McDonagh clearly does not wish to go there. His reluctance to engage with this very obvious Irish issue is reflected too in the musical score. McDonagh’s instruction to Carter Burwell for the score was not to use Irish music, as McDonagh “hated that ‘deedle-dee’ music.” So instead, bewilderingly, and jarringly out of place, the atmosphere is underscored musically by a mix of Brahms’s “Lieder,” a Bulgarian piece at the start of the film, and Indonesian gamelan music.
As Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), one of the two main characters, is a fiddler, and this is central to the plot, there is also some Irish music. This features as part of the story—not the musical score which supports the atmosphere and emotional reinforcement of the film. Apparently the thinking was that these musical pieces from around the world and different cultures would increase the appeal to an international audience.
The opposite is in fact the case. The more specific a story is, the greater its universal appeal. A story that tries to please everybody simply rings hollow; and although Brahms’s German Lieder are hauntingly beautiful, they don’t fit the atmosphere on Inisherin. An a capella sean-nós solo voice would simply have been more fitting.
In addition, and in parallel to this, there is the unhappy absence of any kind of Irish-language speech, song, signage—indeed anything in the native language. Again, this is profoundly out of joint with the time, and the place, shown on screen.
What is the film about? A falling out between two islandmen, because of one of them panicking about ageing and therefore ostracising the other. The older man has decided overnight he wants to immortalise something of himself—in traditional music.
For this proposition to work McDonagh makes the younger man out to be somewhat infantile. Burwell sees him as a Disney character (!) and gives him a matching musical theme. Doherty is simply suddenly bored with Pádraic Súilleabháin. (Is there any significance in the fact that the “simpleton” has an Irish name, while Doherty uses the English spelling?) Even Pádraic’s sister, Siobhán Súilleabháin—the strongest character outside of the two protagonists—finds island life tedious.
Few people in the film do any actual work. The height of it is walking some cattle down the bohereen, or caressing the pet donkey or dog. There is no field work or other rural labour to be seen. People just somehow get along without it—going to the pub in the middle of the day—and yet they have the money to do so and clearly have enough to eat, dress, and furnish their houses.
O’Flaherty’s short stories about island life, in contrast, are defined by people working. He does this easily and naturally, as he grew up in this community—which McDonagh did not. Where “despair” appears as a theme in O’Flaherty, as it does in the expressionist novel The Black Soul, or his play Darkness, this is rooted in recent events, namely in the experience of the First World War—another recent (at that time) event with which the islanders on McDonagh’s island have no connection.
And so the film ends up feeding old stereotypes about Ireland. This ignorance of people’s daily working lives affects the film badly and is the reason why McDonagh can suggest that their lives (not to mention their music) is dull.
Set at a momentous time in Irish history, the film could have had a great deal to say to people in similar situations, then and now; McDonagh instead chooses to ignore this history and working lives and instead, possibly for box-office returns, feeds modern sensibilities about ageing—and does not even do this credibly.