- Film And TV
- 27 Oct 22
Having already teamed up for one cult classic on In Bruges, Irish superstars Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell look to have another on their hands, in Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy-drama, The Banshees Of Inisherin.
The boys are back. Fourteen years after the cultishly beloved dark dramedy In Bruges, writer/director Martin McDonagh and actors Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson have returned with one of the year’s best films, The Banshees Of Inisherin.
The highly anticipated and already widely acclaimed film centres on Colm (Gleeson) and Pádraic (Farrell), two friends living on the tiny island of Inisherin in 1923. One day, Colm suddenly announces that he doesn’t like Pádraic anymore – and the effects of that sudden declaration not only devastate Pádraic, but ripple across the island.
Exploring friendship, estrangement, grief and loneliness against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War, the screenplay is one of McDonagh’s best – intimate, beautifully observed, and combining psychological realism with an almost fable-like quality. While Gleeson is always impressive, the film also marks a career highlight for Farrell, whose performance is tender and heart-breaking – his eyebrows alone deserve an Oscar.
The film received a 14-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival in September, and it will undoubtedly be a hit release. But for many, the draw isn’t just the combination of actors and director – it’s the reunion. In Bruges was beloved by so many cinema fans, and Gleeson and Farrell are acutely aware of the excitement surrounding both their earlier work and the new release.
“It’s lovely,” enthuses Farrell, dressed in black and reclining on a sofa in the Merrion hotel. “Both to be lumped together with such company, and also that people seem to have such affection for In Bruges. People talk about ‘Getting band back together’ and all that, and words like ‘chemistry’ get thrown around.
“It's really lovely, because it's not been hard work for us! It's not something that we created – I mean we tried to create it, in the way that we were both pursuing the same goal, both in In Bruges and in this. But it's been easy for us.”
Gleeson and Farrell met in 2007, when the former was trying to get his adaptation of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds made. But it was when they played an odd couple of hitmen on a weekend in Bruges that they became fast friends.
“We hit it off on a very basic kind of a level,” says Gleeson. “There was a similarity in aspiration and approach, and just the way we looked at life. We're very different, but something central was there, there was a shorthand. That’s one of the reasons it was such a pleasure to get back together again - the fact that we like each other off camera anyway, but we weren’t pulling against each other in the way we work.”
As Farrell and Gleeson speak, they listen attentively to each other, nodding along and interjecting as the other speaks – the easy rapport of friends and colleagues. However, The Banshees Of Inisherin isn’t about two character who love and respect each other. It’s about two characters with fundamentally different views on life, who fall out.
Gleeson’s character, Colm, is a philosophical and artistic soul, who plays music and makes beautiful pieces of art. A melancholy figure suddenly aware of his mortality, he believes he needs to focus on leaving behind a legacy of his existence through music and art. Padraic is a gentle, rambling individual, whose priorities lie not with intellectual pursuits, but on living cheerfully with the people he knows an Inisherin.
When Colm decides that Pádraic’s banal life and conversation is suddenly incompatible with his own desire for a meaningful existence, the two fall out, with Colm enforcing distance in increasingly violent and distressing ways. The film addresses something that many people experience but few openly address: a core-shaking estrangement.
While we have frameworks for ending a romantic relationship, there’s very little discourse about what it means to separate from a lifelong friend or relative, and the grief that comes with it.
“There’s no convention to say, ‘I don’t like you anymore’,” says Gleeson. “How do you end a friendship? You can’t say, ‘I don’t want to go with you anymore’, because you’re not going with each other. There’s no convention for it and people really struggle. So treating it in this way, where these people are possibly more vocal about it than they would have been in 1922 –“
“You can’t ghost anyone on the island!” interjects Farrell. “To use the popular vernacular.”
“No” says Gleeson, “and it has huge implications. But these types of relationship breakdowns happen and are common – people are ghosting each other on the mainland! The only reason it's unusual is that Martin has gotten to the importance of trust, kinship and friendship, in a way that hasn't really been articulated as being as important as it is.
“He’s exploring that when people fall out, one person is often more affected than the other guy, and that doesn't mean that it isn’t upsetting for both. And it’s also looking at the collateral damage of Colm’s creative impulse to be a little outside what's happening on the island generally – it doesn’t just impact Padraic, it ripples through the island. Everyone suddenly turns on Padraic a bit, and that wasn’t Colm’s intention, he just wanted a bit of space.”
In the film, the chasm between the two men disrupts the delicate balance of the island’s social ecosystem, and more disruptions start to occur as disconnection grows and festers.
“The herd instinct in a communal context is often fairly healthy,” says Gleeson. “Because we get benefit from others’ wellbeing and things like that. But then it turns into a pack when it turns around, it becomes something else and dangerous.”
“People think bullying is about excluding a person,” says Farrell, “and they’re missing the fucking point and the power of bullying, and why it's such a significant thing. Bullying is about coming together – that’s what bullying is about. It’s about saying, ‘I don't want to be alone, so if you and me and him can come together in a silent agreement, we'll come together and bash that cunt, then we don’t have to be that cunt. We don’t have to be alone, and vulnerable, and the bullied.’ It’s a pre-emptive strike.”
“You see it all the time,” says Gleeson. “The bullies often get bullied or have been bullied. They’re scared of being alone, so they lash out at others and create a cycle of violence. It’s about isolation and damage.”
This feels so relevant to modern society, I note – whether it’s politicians who have no answers to systemic problems, and so instead turn communities against each other in a competition for support and resources. Or on social media, where people feel incredibly isolated, disconnected and anxious - and instead of coming together, engage in tribalism, where knocking someone else down is a form of protecting yourself.
“Exactly,” says Farrell, “it’s a displacement of energy and purpose.”
“You’re looking at a very particular historical context in the west of Ireland, an old-fashioned Irish way of going on, but it’s really speaking to how people feel and move about in the world,” says Gleeson. “It really moves people. We've been really surprised in the immediacy of the impact it's making in places like Venice and New York.
“Very disparate, different societies, but it's bleeding into that pain of losing somebody who was a pillar of who you thought you were. And the idea of the pack mentality you can get on Twitter or Instagram, whatever it is. It’s about connection and disconnection.”
The film takes place in 1923, and there are several subtle references to the Civil War taking place on the mainland – a war that turned brother against brother, friend against friend, and saw people forming allegiances that they felt deep conviction for, but often cost them their relationships and sometimes their lives.
Gleeson and Farrell reveal that Martin McDonagh first spoke to them about the project seven years ago, and in original drafts of the screenplay, the Civil War played a much bigger role.
“It was more intrinsic to the plot,” said Gleeson, “but he decided to make it more about the people. I remember him saying it was kind of a relief that it’s more intimate and focused on this relationship, because it allows the audience to bring in their own thoughts and interpretations. And that is the brilliance - the second time you see it, you come back with a different view.
“The second time I saw this, I said, ‘This is how wars start.’ You think of Ukraine, the Eastern people, you look at the North of Ireland and everything that's happened all over the world. You think of bosom friends who suddenly start shooting each other.”
Colm’s desire for meaning, to leave behind a piece of music or art that will outlive him, speaks to the idea of legacy. Both Farrell and Gleeson are acclaimed and beloved actors – but they’re also family men with sons, and famous for being agreeable and kind, as well as brilliant. Thinking about their own relationship with art and cinema and the idea of legacy, what do they value and what do they want to leave behind them?
“It’s funny,” says Farrell. “About a year ago, I was talking with Henry – the youngest of my two boys, he’s 10 - about a recording artist and how much fame they had. And he said, ‘Dad, isn’t it funny, like you're really famous, but imagine that in 100 years nobody will really know what you did.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re dead right! So what does that mean? It means I just enjoy the now. That's all that means.’
“And then we went off. And of course art lives on, and when you make something, there’s a chance that it goes out into the world, and informs human beings. It can affect mood and experience… But as far as legacy goes, if you just treat the moment with the integrity it deserves, and that it asks of you, the rest will take care of itself.”
Not that the two men are underestimating the power of art and cinema.
“I'm a lover of cinema at my core,” says Farrell, referring to Indiana Jones and Back To The Future as some formative loves. He also cites Young Frankenstein and Wim Winders’ Paris, Texas as important touchstones he’s looking at now as he prepares for a new role. “A lot of my references for the experience of what it is to be human were taught to me through film.
“I mean, Paris, Texas was the first time I experienced the depth of loneliness and loss. And the depth of existential crises and suffering that can happen in very subtle ways, between two people who apparently love each other. That film was kind of a sea change for me.”
“That’s what art is,” agrees Gleeson. “It’s making you feel less alone, exploring conditions that allow you to open your mind to other things, comfort and solace in some ways, challenge in others. I remember learning what rape actually was from films. Seeing what rape meant from the victim's point of view? Deliverance did that for me.
“I was never as absolutely upset but I finally got it. I was only in my teens, but that feeling of utter powerlessness, that feeling of abuse at that level. A movie did that. Deliverance did that and that was a gift, an absolute gift. That opened my eyes to what power it was. It's about power has nothing to do with sex, it’s about power, subjugation, torture.
“That’s the power of films, changing viewpoints. That’s the legacy of art, and I would like to add to it a little bit.” He nods at Farrell. “That’s something you said to me when we saw the beauty of Colm’s house in the film [filled with art and models]. It’s asking you to contribute something. You're not just insignificant, you’re proving yourself slightly worthy of what is out there.”
“There's a certain romance to the idea of legacy,” says Farrell. “It’s a very romantic thing to me being part of the lineage, the storytelling thing, going back to the Greeks. Or going back to look at Cannes in 1930, and we’ve been to Cannes. It's magic to be part of that whole lineage of telling story on films. But when I think legacy, I really do think of my kids.”
Gleeson nods as Farrell is speaking.
“I would love the idea that my son wasn't one hundred percent right,” continues Farrell, “that even in 100 years, there'll be one film on a crusty fucking shelf somewhere in somebody's collection, which will stand the test of time. I love that idea. But the bottom line is, we’re so fortunate to experience the power of the immediate. I’m just going to try to appreciate and enjoy that.”
The Banshees Of Inisherin is in cinemas now.
Read plenty more interviews in the new issue of Hot Press, out now.
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