It’s well-nigh impossible to get a word in edgeways. The Banshees of Inisherin, a small film full of giant performances that has become a surprise top contender for Oscar glory, had its Venice Film Festival premiere the night before.
Today’s reviews are universally ecstatic, which is more than anyone really expected for a modest story set on a tiny island off the west coast of Ireland in 1923. Even our current setting, a dreary hotel reception room, is effervescing with triumph.
That modest story is about two friends who fall out; one simply tells the other he doesn’t want to talk to him any more. The two real-life friends who play them, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, are sitting either side of a small table at the film-festival-unfriendly hour of 9am in full banter mode, still debating what their respective characters were really thinking.
Gleeson, a great hewn rock of a man at 67, is a beloved character actor with the look of a poet. Later that week, Farrell, Ireland’s biggest Hollywood star, 21 years younger than Gleeson, who has made some very bad thrillers and filled a lot of gossip pages in his time, will win the festival’s Volpi Cup as best actor.
Director Martin McDonagh and I sit between them as they hijack their interview, talking over each other in barrelling half-sentences as they chew over their characters’ story. Gleeson plays Colm, a fiddle-player and composer who has decided to make a late run to become the musician he feels he always could have been. Padraic, played with puppyish sweetness by Farrell, has been his best friend and daily drinking companion, known for kindness and decency if not his wit, for years.
Padraic’s orbit is small. He tends his small farm, takes comfort from the company and housekeeping skills of his much cleverer sister Siobhan (a splendid Kerry Condon) and lavishes love on his pet miniature donkey. Colm has decided he’s boring. Too boring to be allowed to clog up the remaining hours of a man who has decided he is committed to his art.
I toss them a bone of contention: why is Colm still prepared to drink a pint with the local cop? He’s a bully who will be revealed to be abusing his son (Dominic, played with great emotional effect by Barry Keoghan). That isn’t a spoiler because it’s clear from the start he’s a wrong ’un.
“I think anybody who breaks up with somebody will find very odd bedfellows, do you not think so?” says Farrell. “Just while they readjust. And his motivation is he needs to keep his headspace. The cop is just a pain in the arse. But he’s a pushy swine. If a cop sits beside you in the bar: there’s a lot to be said about that.”
Gleeson jumps in: “But he doesn’t bother me. You can be with someone who’s just a pain in the arse and once he’s gone, he’s out of your head. Whereas with THAT,” he points to Farrell, “that’s a much deeper thing. It’s a beauty and a truth and somewhere in there, I know that.”
Farrell squawks in mock horror at being called “that”, then addresses Gleeson as his character without seeming to notice. “I think that while you’re going through this reckoning at this stage of your life, Colm, I think I’d drive you fecking mad. I’ve gone from the beauty to become something else.”
I catch McDonagh’s eye across the table. How did you manage to interrupt them for long enough to direct them? I ask as the two chief combatants draw breath. “He was talking himself at the time,” says Gleeson immediately.
McDonagh, clearly the hard man of the gang, remains impassive. “I guess on set we had a chat but ….”
Adds Farrell enthusiastically: “Proper, normal chatting.”
McDonagh continues: “We have a two or three-week rehearsal period, so we do a lot of chatting then. We don’t waste time on this shit.”
These three go back to 2008. McDonagh was then a stellar playwright and theatre director with a string of awards to his name for such works as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. He had also won an Oscar in 2006 for the only film he had made, a short called Six Shooter. His debut feature was In Bruges, another small film that would turn out to have a long afterlife, still regularly appearing on best-ever film lists, starring the two actors he now calls “the boys”.
Farrell played a hitman who messes up a job and is told by the boss to cool his heels for a while in Bruges. He is under the watchful eye of an older gangster played by Gleeson who, unlike his restless, guilt-ridden younger charge, is thrilled to have the chance to see the picturesque Belgian city and arrives with a guidebook.
McDonagh next directed Seven Psychopaths and then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which won a slew of awards, including acting Oscars in 2016 for Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell.
The Banshees of Inisherin had started life as a play around eight years ago, with a bigger scope, a Civil War theme and a bloody battle climax; he put it away because it wasn’t working. The only thing he kept from that play was its starting point: the portrayal of a break-up between friends.
“I wanted to capture the sadness of that,” says McDonagh. “And to ask: can you tell a story that is as simple as that and just see where it goes? That was all I had on day one. The reason for it and the meanness of that, you know.” When he took it further, it proceeded, seemingly of its own accord, into madness.
Men’s egos and men’s despair, McDonagh has said, are his core subjects. In Banshees, Colm, frustrated that Padraic keeps badgering him after he has specifically told him to leave him alone, threatens to cut off one of his fiddle-playing fingers if he breaks their estrangement.
“I didn’t know, when he walked into the pub and made that threat, that was going to happen,” says McDonagh. “That was about 25 pages in. And then everything fell into place after that.”
When Padraic persists, Colm does exactly what he has said he would do. Meanwhile, Padraic, a generous soul who once marvelled at the sky and talked to the animals, is transformed by hurt and bitterness into someone else altogether.
There is a clear parallel to be drawn with the Civil War, visible from their fictional island as the odd blast of gunfire or flare of an explosion. “A bad do,” say the islanders, nodding at the flashes. They don’t need to say that it could never happen here. Nothing happens on Inisherin.
But nothing, as Gleeson reflects, is actually nothing. “In the Civil War, a huge amount of it was about swearing allegiance to the King,” he says. “We always felt growing up: why would you go to war with your brother over that? But it’s who they were. Siobhan accuses us of fighting our petty grievances over nothing, but you’ve got to look in. How is it not nothing? And it’s not nothing.”
For all three of them, even Farrell, who calls Padraic “my fella”, Colm’s callous cruelty is understandable, regrettable but unavoidable, even essential. As Colm says, no one remembers nice people, but “everyone to a man knows Mozart’s name”. (Padraic: “Well, I don’t!“)
McDonagh, who, at 52 is conscious of using his remaining creative years efficiently, told The Observer he felt increasing sympathy for Colm’s mounting desperation. At first, he was for Padraic. “But I knew for the film to work, I had to give Colm’s side of the equation as much merit and as much thought,” he said. “So Brendan and I talked about Colm’s music, and the desire for art, and with that, for me, from being 60-40 in favour of Padraic I moved to 49-51.”
This is the question at the heart of The Banshees of Inisherin: whether legacy matters. In the end, it is about death and the fear of death, of oblivion and obliteration. And it is true, Farrell muses, that history is reserved for the agitators, the people who could not be satisfied with being pleasant. Colm is an agitated man. “I don’t mean to be glib; this is not someone who is anarchic for the sake of being anarchic,” says Farrell. “For him, the agitation he creates on the island and in my life and ultimately in himself as well is something that he deeply, deeply needs.”
What he needs, says Gleeson, is to put away his past distractions.
“My journey was being dragged back to that place,” he says. “I was actually probably happier then, I don’t know. But it’s trying to sever a part of me, because I think that’s what is really in the way. It would have been an absolute relief to spend two hours talking about donkey shite at the beginning. To spend two hours talking about donkey shite was hilarious. But as a friend of mine said, it’s always the thing you love the most that gets you down in the end.
“Basically, he’s menopausal. I think he’s at a time when he says, ‘My curiosity is growing, I need to achieve something with that, but I need to get in my headspace.’ It wasn’t just done as an emotional thing. But is that self-destruction or is that following your lights? There is a long history of people making sacrifices to fulfil their destiny as they see it. So the whole thing for me became not just about an emotional rupture, but also a deeply affecting question about the legitimacy of an artistic quest.”
It’s the same argument Colm and Padraic have in the pub before Colm cuts off a finger, observes McDonagh. “Is being nice enough? Or do you have to leave something behind to make living worthwhile? I’m not sure I’ve got a final answer for it.”
There isn’t an answer, says Gleeson. Farrell talks over both of them, this time to me. “And we’re still wrestling with it! Obviously, it’s hilarious to listen to us. Obviously, we’re still fecking confused. But we’re still wrestling with the issues that are presented in it. In a lovely way.”
And so they are, still at it as I reluctantly close the door behind me. Still laughing, all of us.
The Banshees of Inisherin is released on December 26.
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