Martin McDonagh is a writer able to adapt his style to the medium he is using and there are usually notable distinctions between his stage and screen work, responding to the quite separate demands of these outlets. But in his latest film, The Banshees of Inisherin which screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2022 last week, there is a keen crossover between these worlds in a movie that in location, style, themes and structure draws on some of McDonagh’s most renowned Ireland-set plays. Looking specifically at The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, there are plenty of similarities with his new film as McDonagh uses the intimacy of Insiherin and its characters to explore his much visited notions of gentle masculinity, isolation, friendship and violence that slowly seeps into the community from the world beyond.
McDonagh’s work is quite tightly focused in its nature, usually built around a small group of characters in a confined place and often untouched by the world beyond. Even when he creates a modern setting as with In Bruges or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, that location is made to feel confining and old-fashioned, a place that traps the characters and, crucially, is to them ‘boring’. But while both of these films have a cinematic expanse, it is in McDonagh’s stage work where the claustrophobia and limitation of location are best felt, and this idea sweeps across McDonagh’s Ireland plays particularly, set in places where little happens and there is no means of escape beyond the bounded existence in which they live. That this often resonates as a mental as well as a physical confinement is part of the psychological dimension of the plays in which education and opportunity are often lacking as well as financial freedom to choose a different path.
There are beautiful shots of the vast arable landscape in The Banshees of Inisherin which link directly to the material isolation of the characters. Houses miles from one another are a feature of the playwright’s Irish work where the concept of neighbours may mean farmsteads many miles apart where separation from other human beings is a way of life and characters must actively seek connection in places of social gathering if they want company. This is manifest in The Banshees of Inisherin with seemingly great distances across beautiful but often rugged or steep countryside to reach the village or a friend’s home. When Padraic (Colin Farrell) calls for his friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) at 2pm every day for their pub visit, that journey is not easily accomplished nor is the subsequent walk to the pub or harbour. These are beautiful locations but McDonagh is doing two things here; first, emphasising the investment of time required to physically move around this space – with arguably little else to do – that offers an insight into the restrictions they live under, but second, it brings a different kind of charge to character conversations, giving them a far more serious purpose if individuals will trudge or ride for miles for entertainment or, as is the case here, for important confrontations, telling us much about their psychology and feelings. The sufficient depth and immediacy of that rage and sorrow can seemingly outlast the long time it must take them to reach their object in order to unload it.
And it is within those physical limitations that McDonagh generates a kind of drama in which characters rub along quite badly together through years of over exposure. Sometimes, as with mother and daughter Mag and Maureen in the Beauty Queen of Leanne, this manifest as a familial jadedness, two people who have lived together for a long time and find each other’s company tiresome. Similarly in Hangmen, where most of the action takes place in a single pub run by a bickering family unit among a group of derided regulars, they nonetheless unite against a suspicious interloper. These are places where little love is lost within and between households, and McDonagh draws both humour and drama from the interactions of people confined together in an almost Beckettian hell waiting for something to happen.
Elsewhere, McDonagh uses the tight-knit community as a place where gossip can spring up, and secondary characters often like nothing more than to pass comment on the business of their neighbours. It is a dreadful rumour of moggy mortality that brings crazed Padraic back to Inishmore seeking the truth while the almost fantastical possibility of her daughter eloping with her childhood sweetheart causes Mag to intervene disastrously. In The Banshees of Inisherin, then, McDonagh draws on his theatre work and uses this small island lifestyle to great effect, establishing both a weariness between a brother and sister – another Padraic and Siobhan – between Padraic and his friend Colm as well as a hilarious backdrop of gossipy islanders either directly trading in scandal in the convenience store or openly challenging Padraic in the pub and other locations with hearsay about the breakdown of his friendship with Colm. The success and credibility of these interactions as well as the jokes that develop from them emerge directly from McDonagh’s experience of writing for the stage where the fine-grained creation of small places and the incumbent behviours they generate is sharply pointed towards the drama and developing sense of violence beating beneath the surface.
Masculinity and Violence
Male violence and disrupted notions of masculinity are essential themes in McDonagh’s work on stage and screen, often developing out of their physical and emotional confinement. Many of these works end in quite gruesome and candid attacks on individuals that take on a cartoonish savagery that the viewer only half takes seriously. But this is often tempered with personal grief, decline and even a form of justice being rightly served. That these can be simultaneously shocking and moving is characteristic of McDonagh’s style but it always leaves room for an ambiguous if somewhat bleak ending with an unresolved resolution in which characters get a conclusion they deserve but not one that necessarily ends the scenario itself.
But masculinity in McDonagh’s work is not solely defined by violence and instead the writer tempers his characterisation with depths of feeling or affection which may be comic, cultural or intellectual. In The Banshees of Inisherin, McDonagh draws a direct line between Padraic’s love of his miniature donkey and “Mad Padraic’s” love of his cat in The Lieutenant of Inishmore in which both men express greater connection to and affection for a cute animal than to any human characters in their stories. And this becomes a means to explore ideas of manliness and particularly violent masculinity through humour. The notion that a psychopathic INLA man’s greatest love is a black, fluffy cat is inherently funny, that there is a deep well of tenderness and feeling for this creature that not only sends him home in haste on a revenge spree but, crucially, causes him to publicly weep upon first hearing the news.
Likewise Padraic’s equivalent love of the small donkey is a comical projection, but one that ultimately asks bigger questions about his violent impulses and the softer aspects of his character. It becomes an important plot device which in one sense is quite different to the cat-loving terrorist because The Banshees of Inisherin‘s Padraic is a nice, albeit “dull” man at the start of the film who is led to violent outcomes through the course of the story in which the tiny donkey plays a significant role. This Padraic is also a broader animal love, wanting his farm animals to freely enter the house, a scenario that is again pitched as hilariously sweet, but speaks to the connections McDonagh draws between brutality and the far gentler psychology that underpins it, challenging stereotypical concepts of aggressive masculinity and its origins.
But a love of cute animals is not the only way that McDonagh does this, and his male characters also have an almost soulful desire or need to express their inner selves through culture. Colm in The Banshees of Insherin abandons his friendship with Padraic largely to pursue a role as a composer, wanting to leave behind a tangible legacy through the creation of an Irish melody. His friendship, he explains, consumes time, talking about very little and could be better spent in contemplating his own mortality by creating a piece of music that can outlast him, for which he engages a group of students to perform it in the pub. The denial of this by others also becomes the catalyst for other kinds of personal savagery, and, like both The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, present a gaudy and excessive violence as part of its conclusion.
Warlike aggression is also the backdrop to many of these works as unseen men vie for land and power off stage or screen, usually with a political dimension that foreshadows or even creates the conditions for that violence entering into the consciousness of the remote dwellers of Inishmore or Leenane and it almost makes itself the inevitable outcomes of their interactions. Whether it be national struggles between Ireland and Britain as in the Lieutenant of Inishmore set in 1993 at the outset of the peace process or in The Banshees of Inisherin staged in 1921 where the distant sounds of guns and bombs during the Irish Civil War can be heard on the mainland. These are great moments where political and social instability, uncertainty about the future and new outlets for male aggression present themselves, creating the conditions in which the characters of McDonagh’s plays and those in this film feels those effects filter through and shape their own lives, regardless of their direct involvement in them.
A Theatrical World
The Banshees of Inisherin is then a theatre film, not because it is based directly on a stage play or involves long and static scenes of complex dialogue but because it draws so heavily on McDonagh’s theatrical creations in which characters are hemmed in by their physical, psychological and emotional space. While cinematographer Ben Davis creates considerable cinematic beauty in the island landscape shown in aerial shots as well as the several scenes taking place on country roads or at the beach, nonetheless much of the film’s action occurs in interior locations that resonate with his theatre work including Padraic’s farmhouse, the pub and to a lesser extent Colm’s home and the shop.
There is a simplicity to this that accords entirely with equivalent places referenced in plays about Inishmore, Leenane and Inishmaan. These are ultimately domestic plays grounded in a latent violence that makes its presence felt as both the exterior world and, in the case of The Banshees of Inisherin, an existential obsession intrude upon the simple and unremarkable lives of the inhabitants. His most theatrical film to date, these elements would make a reverse adaptation fairly simple to construct, turning a cinematic experience into a stagey one.
The Banshees of Inisherin was screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2022 and is released in the UK on 21 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
NB This post expands an idea first presented in a review of the film published on The Reviews Hub website.