Two Irishmen – Padraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) – live on an island off the coast of Ireland.
They are mates, or rather, they used to be. The story starts when one day Colm simply refuses to acknowledge Padraic and ignores him when he knocks on his window to summon him for their regular visit to the pub.
Padraic is hurt and puzzled. Did he do or say something to offend Colm? Why else would Colm suddenly end this lifelong friendship? But no; when Padraic corners him and demands an explanation, Colm tells Padraic, none too kindly, that he is sick of wasting his time with such a simple-minded and stupid man. He, Colm, is older, better educated and wants to do something to leave his mark before he dies.
Like what? Well, Colm plays music, he writes a bit, he dreams of composing a deathless poem or song. Padraic doesn’t accept this as a good reason for dropping him so completely and cruelly, even to the extent of walking out of the pub out of the pub if Padraic comes in.
When Padraic keeps pestering him, Colm threatens that every time Padraic so much as speaks to him, Colm will cut off one of his own fingers! Surely he can’t be serious, can he?
The story is set in 1923 at the tail-end of the Irish Civil war that followed the bloody uprising against English rule, and the occasional sound of gunfire or plume of smoke from an explosion on the distant mainland shore provide an unsettling context for a story that, for all the humour and charm of its Irish setting, has tragic as well as comic elements. The filmmakers call it a black tragi-comedy.
Colm’s ghastly ultimatum has consequences which ripple through the community. Padraic is drawn closer to Dominic, son of the local garda (policeman) Peadar, a nasty piece of work who doesn’t mind admitting that he’d like to see the firing-squad executions rumoured to be taking place soon over the water.
There’s fey old Mrs McCormick, who lurks in laneways and fields accosting passersby – when they don’t manage to hide from her – with tales of doom and gloom.
There’s Padraic’s sister Siobhan, yearning for wider horizons than this humble village can offer, for all that she’s fond of her good-natured but dull brother and his beloved pet donkey. But she’s a kind soul and they take in poor downtrodden Dominic for a while when he flees his father’s violent abuse.
There’s the publican and assorted shopkeepers who are mystified by the rift between these two former inseparables.
While Padraic licks his wounds, Colm cultivates new friends among some rare visitors – a group of traditional music collectors who turn up for a few weeks and naturally gravitate to the pub, the centre of social life.
Padraic may be a bit of a gobshite he’s not above plotting some mischief in return for Colm’s rejection. Trouble is, he’s no good at being devious, doesn’t think things through and ends up full of remorse for a trick played on one of the visiting musos which only serves to further inflame Colm’s hostility.
Altogether no good comes of any of this, including for poor Jenny the donkey. Who’s to blame – is it the somewhat witchy Mrs McCormick? Is she a banshee, the wailing female spirit of Irish tradition that warns of impending death?
And what do we make of the fact that Colm calls his song, when he finally finishes it, The Banshees of Inisherin? Is HE the banshee who’s brought doom and woe to the village?
Whatever your take on these mythological elements, they don’t spoil a good story about people who probably believe in them. Everything that happens can also be explained by the foibles and follies of human nature, and personally I’m inclined to blame Colm for starting it all with his nastiness towards his harmless old mate.
There are many things to like about Banshees. As well as being a good relationships drama, it’s a tone-perfect capture of pre-modern Irish idiom and culture, with characters to match, and actors more than up to the job of fleshing them out. I loved it.