It must be a great relief for Colin Farrell to finally be in a film in which he can speak with an Irish accent. A tragi-comedy of insularity, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin is set on a island off the west coast of Ireland. There is no actual place called Inisherin, but one assumes the director and his lead actors are familiar with what goes on in a smal Irish village. This tale, at once so absurd, also has a terrible ring of reality.
The story is as simple as it is daft, with overtones of the bleak humour of Samuel Beckett. One day Pádraic (Colin Farrell), a simple-minded cattle farmer, goes to collect his mate, Colm (Brendan Gleeson), so they can take their regular stroll to the local pub and sip a Guinness or two. Colm, however, is not in his cottage. When Pádraic catches up with him, Colm tells him bluntly that he wants nothing more to do with him. But why? What I have done? asks Pádraic. “I just don’t like you no more,” comes the reply.
The Banshees of Inisherin is a farce about a broken friendship in a community so small there are virtually no other options. If Colm no longer wants to speak with him, Pádraic is reduced to the company of his sister, Siobhán (Kerry Condon), a miniature donkey, and an impulsive, over-sexed young hooligan named Dominic (Barry Keogh). It’s common knowledge that Pádraic is a bit “dim” or “dull”, but his sense of natural justice will not permit him to let go of the friendship so easily. He wants to know how he can mend this broken bridge.
When Siobhán asks Colm what’s going on, he tells her he’s decided that her brother is nothing more than a drag on his valuable time. Colm plays the violin and has musical ambitions. He feels the years are passing swiftly, and he needs to devote himself to his compositions, so he can leave something behind. He’s currently working on a tune called The Banshees of Inisherin.
For Pádraic, this makes no sense at all. Why can’t Colm do his composing and still be friends? When he persists in trying to patch up the rift, Colm makes him an ultimatum: If he doesn’t stay away, he’ll cut off one of his fingers for each time Pádraic bothers him. You may think this sounds counterproductive, putting rather a big obstacle in the way of Colm’s musical aspirations, but on Insherrin common sense is a rare as a four-leaf clover. Siobhán, who seems to be the only person in the film with a grain of intelligence, is only too aware that so long as she stays on the island looking after her brother, she’ll never have a life.
What begins as a story of provincial buffoonery gradually reveals itself as an allegory of Irish history and character. I don’t know why allegories are all the rage in movies nowadays, but this one is especially poignant. As life goes on in Inisherin, civil war is raging on the mainland, and this is viewed by some as a very exciting thing. Kearney (Gary Lydon), the local copper – an unscrupulous thug and bully – thinks it would be grand to get over and watch an execution. A spiteful, witch-like old lady haunts the village, predicting doom and disaster. The local postmistress is so hungry for gossip she opens her customers’ letters. Colm and a bunch of young musicians are devoted to their folk music to the exclusion of any worldly considerations, while Siobhán is facing the prospect of becoming an old maid on an island full of idiots.
Above all, the broken friendship between Colm and Pádraic stands as a devastating indictment of the mentality that has kept the Irish at each other’s throats for so many generations. Colm makes an arbitrary decision that he doesn’t like Pádraic any more, driving his former friend to desperation. Every effort to make amends leads to a more extreme rejection. Even though Colm has moments when he feels an obvious sympathy and affection for Pádraic, having made a decision, his superhuman stubbornness won’t permit of a backward step. The struggle continues until Pádraic becomes just as twisted and stubborn. This, says McDonagh, is the story of the Irish.
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are at the peak of their form, ably supported by Kerry Condon, who spends much of the film displaying the same incredulty the audience is feeling. If you thought McDonagh put redneck America under the microscope in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), he’s even more ruthless in his treatment of his native country. There may be no actual crime committed on Inisherin, but every day brings the characters closer to the brink, solely through their own stubbornness and stupidity. At a certain point we stop laughing and start wincing, realising that it’s this kind of inanity that turns the wheel of history.
It’s well known that American audiences won’t line up for foreign-language films with subtitles, so whenever a European movie appears to be appropriately heartwarming (and successful at the box office), there’s a good chance Hollywood will reshoot it for the local market. That’s what happened with the French hit, La Famille Bélier (2014), which was refilmed as CODA and went on to win the 2022 Oscar for Best Picture – scandalously, in my opinion. Now we have A Man Called Otto, based on a Swedish feature by Hannes Holm, A Man Called Ove (2015), which was nominated for an Oscar in 2017 as Best Foreign Language Film.
The story is basically the same, with the changes of detail reflecting the different political climates of Sweden and the United States. In the original version, grumpy old Ove was gradually tamed, and revealed as a softy, by a young Iranian woman who moves in across the street, with her Swedish husband and two young daughters. In A Man Called Otto, the new neighbour is Mexican, with a husband from Anaheim and the requisite cute little girls. The effect on viewers is approximately the same: we see that foreigners are human beings just like us, and even the most superficially misanthropic people can have hearts of gold.
By this stage you’re probably starting to feel a little queasy, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. I went into this movie with no expectations – or rather the expectation of wanting to go straight back out the door – but found it a surprisingly painless experience. It’s safe to predict many viewers will love this film especially those who never saw A Man Called Ove, which is to say, the vast majority. The chief reason will be Tom Hanks’s performance in the lead role. Although he’s nowhere near as good at playing a cranky old man as Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt(2002) or Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino (2008), Hanks is a reliable – and bankable – screen presence.
When we meet Otto he is buying a piece of rope at a hardware store, getting into an argument about paying an extra thirty cents more than he had calculated. It’s not the money that concerns him, it’s the principle. This inflexible moral code is the defining feature of Otto’s personality. We next find him patrolling his block, a one-man neighbourhood watch searching for litter placed in the wrong bins or gates left unlocked. Although he has just retired from his job, angrily rejecting a cake and a staff party, he treats everyday life as a sucession of tasks and duties. His assessment of his neighbours, and indeed of most people on the planet, is that they are “idiots”.
It’s no surprise that Otto has bought the rope to hang himself. Following his wife’s death earlier in the year, he has found no joy in life or any reason to prolong his existence. He is interrupted in his methodical preparations for suicide by the calamitous arrival of the new neighbours, who – “Idiots!” – are unable to park a trailer in the street. Otto ejects the husband from the driver’s seat and does the deed, earning the unwanted thanks of Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and her family. He also earns a gift of some of Marisol’s cooking, that he delays his departure from this world in order to enjoy.
Throughout the film, the same scenario will play out again and again. Every time Otto makes plans to kill himself he will be waylaid by some distraction which usually involves him performing a good deed. The ruder he is to people, the more they seem to like him. Despite himself, everyone recognises that Otto is a very good fellow. We get a few extra insights by constant flashbacks in which we watch the young Otto, played by Tom’s son, Truman Hanks, as he meets, woos, and marries the one-and-only woman in his life, (played by Rachel Keller).
A Man Called Otto is the kind of film that asks us to switch off the critical reflex, ease ourselves gently into a pool of sentimentality, and think better of the world. In an atmosphere of division and hatred, as found in present-day America, such projects are probably not only understandable but desirable. As a film that engages with the complex political tensions that have seeped into America’s towns and suburbs, it’s a more humane production than those big budget blockbusters such as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever or Avatar: The Way of Water, that are saturated in cartoon violence and bloodshed. A Man called Ottosuggests the implicit injustices of life may be overcome with understanding rather than carnage. Like Otto, we can all change our minds and open our hearts to those who are the same as us, but different. It’s not a bad message to kick off the new year.
The Banshees of Inisherin
Written & directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan, Pat Shortt, Gary Lydon, Jon Kenny, Sheila Flitton, David Pearse, Bris Ní Neachtain, Aaron Monaghan
Ireland/UK/USA, M, 114 mins
A Man Called Otto
Directed by Marc Foster
Written by David Magee, based on the novel, ‘A Man Called Ove’, by Fredrik Backman, and the film of the same name by Hannes Holm
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mariana Treviño, Cameron Britton, Juanita Jennings, Rachel Keller, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Mike Birbiglia, Kelly Lamor Wilson
UK, rated M, 126 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 31 December, 2022