Arts & Entertainment

Off The Coast Of Modernity

Martin McDonagh’s poignant and hilarious parable

(Jonathan Hession/Searchlight Pictures)

Even by the standards of Martin McDonagh’s lifetime of work, The Banshees of Inisherin is a masterpiece. Like all masterpieces, everyone will have their own interpretation, because the layers of meaning are complex, multiple and interconnected. So what follows is just my own reflection on the piece — because it’s been hard to think about anything else this week. I watched the movie twice, and the first time I was riveted to my seat by the sheer emotional rawness of it all; and the second, I just couldn’t stop laughing. I suppose all dark comedies are a bit like that. But this one was darker and funnier than any I recall. (Spoilers follow)

In some ways, the star is Ireland itself. The movie, featuring Brendan Gleason and Colin Farrell as two longtime friends, is full of marbled sky and clinging mist. One script direction:

Storm-clouds and rain over various parts of the island; the castle ruins, the lonely lake, the laneways, then nearer home; the cows, the pony, the donkey, then…

Drone cinematography swoops you over a quilt of higgledy-piggledy stone-wall enclosures, wild goats, meandering sheep and dirt roads until you reach the Atlantic, where the chiseled rock formations drop suddenly, like a wall, into the vast ocean.

This is Inisherin, an imaginary island off the west coast in 1923 during the Irish Civil War. The residents sometimes hear the sound of mortar shells or the rat-a-tat-tat of firing squads on the mainland but don’t seem particularly interested. Their world is still apart, as it always has been. Electricity is rare; farmyard animals wander in and out of houses; a sailboat acts as a ferry to the mainland; and everyone knows everything about everyone else, deeply, from childhood.

This is life before modernity, before liberalism, before even radio — the kind of world today’s post-liberals talk so fondly about. It’s what the sociologists call a “thick” community — unified by a shared religion, entertained by their own music and storytelling, congregating every day and night in the same pub, repeating the rhythms of centuries. No atomization here: just the deepest of communities and the simplest of existences.

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