Brendan Hoban: Gratuitous violence is at the heart of the ‘Banshees’

Western People 21.3.2023

What makes a successful film? Or at least successful in the opinion of the Oscar academy awards? Once we thought it was westerns like High Noon – with a star player (Gary Cooper), a female interest (Grace Kelly), catchy background music repeated endlessly until it became familiar, a build-up of tension, a ritual conflict that ended with good overcoming evil and in the end a sadder but wiser couple riding off into the sunset. Then musicals, adventure, human interest and other forms of cinematic nonsense took their place in the Oscar sun.
   The sum of knowledge about what makes a successful film is that no one really knows – until they count the money afterwards. Or, the key to this ongoing conundrum may be in the title of the film that swept the boards (as they say) this year, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Or as the screen-writer, William Goldman, once remarked, that when it comes to predicting a formula that produces Oscar success ‘Nobody knows anything’.
   This year was a bumper year for Irish nominations – 14 in all.  Usually we kept Oscar interest alive with the occasional Irish success like ‘My Left Foot’ but this year with a superfluity of nominations we had a field day predicting which (or even how many) of the five acting contenders would give us something to really cheer about for a change.
   With The Banshees of Inisherin getting as far as the final night with no less than nine nominations (with five others from a number of lesser possibilities) we felt we had the right to pick and choose – though with multiple Irish nominations in the same category, it was difficult to achieve the usual Irish priority of bringing both sides of the road with us. For example, would Colin Farrell or Paul Mescal win the best actor award?
Most bets were on The Banshees to deliver a sparkling result with, it seemed legions of Irish people taking the road to Los Angeles with the promise of a few leprechauns, shillelaghs and the inevitable pints of Guinness thrown in for good measure.
   But the script was wrong. The Banshees, incredibly (after all the hype), drew a complete blank out of nine nominations while – again its title carrying a certain appropriateness  – An Irish Goodbye took one of two Irish Oscars.
In fairness, the disappointed Banshees took it all in good spirits ­­and consoled each other, as this after all is what actors do. But it felt almost like a stunning rebuke to Martin McDonagh and his legacy of success as everything he touched once seemed to turn into gold.
   Many years ago now I remember watching a trilogy of Martin McDonagh’s early plays in a theatre in Cork. The three plays followed one after the other in a marathon session that presented at first as a daunting challenge but that ended as a hugely enjoyable experience. I had already attended McDonagh’s famous early play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, premiered in 1996, and was very much taken by his insights into rural Ireland, not least his feel for the character and idiom of the west and the weft of our typical, often banal, conversations.
   McDonagh, born in England of Irish descent, had holidayed in Mayo as a young man and had listened to conversations that fed his imagination and later his craft for a very particular dialogue as a playwright.
   Sometime later, in Dublin, I went to see his then latest work, the title of which (thankfully!) I cannot recall but which ended with the stage littered in corpses, most of which were dismembered and covered with blood. I remember the curtain gradually going up to reveal a scene of utter carnage and the gasp of the audience. Up to then, if memory serves me right, there was little to prepare the audience for what subsequently became McDonagh’s penchant for introducing into the most ordinary scenes of rural Irish life a sudden and spectacular violence.
   After that experience, my enthusiasm for McDonagh’s art became considerably more restrained. But, more recently, when the publicity for McDonagh’s latest success, The Banshees of Inisherin (or at least the oft-repeated television clips of some of the dialogue between the characters played by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) seemed to suggest a return to McDonagh’s Leenane period, I decided to have a look.
   From the clips it seemed to be that, with the depiction of an effortless ordinariness of much of rural Irish life, McDonagh had rediscovered his original landscape. Gleeson and Farrell seemed to bounce endearingly off each other and the film seemed to promise more of the Leenane landscape rather than the later slaughterhouse territory. McDonagh’s unveiling of an fortuitous violence seeping out from under the idyllic surface of rural Irish life may have had too many effective repeats. The Brendan Gleeson character, a fiddler, cutting off four fingers of his right hand, seemed grotesquely at odds with the context.
   Despite the disappointments, history was made this year when James Martin, who starred in An Irish Goodbye, was the first Down syndrome actor to win an Oscar. The delight on his face as he stood on the podium with a great galaxy of stars singing him Happy Birthday was the kind of triumph over adversity that is the source of real emotion rather than the synthetic version usually so much on show on Oscars-night. His father, watching the proceedings from his home in Belfast, commented that when they were told when James was born that he would probably never speak: ‘And here we are. James not only speaks, once he started speaking he has not shut up since’. Now that’s really something to celebrate. God, as the saying goes, and is the case with Down syndrome children, as their parents can discover, can write straight with what others imagine are crooked lines.

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One Comment

  1. Sean O’Conaill says:

    The miniature donkey deserved an oscar – for patient self-sacrifice in the service of a miserable plot. No one could ever believe it had choked on Brendan Gleeson’s fingers, dedicated vegetarian that it obviously was. It was faking it, to bring the whole impossible enterprise to an end, so that the film crew could get out of the rain and into the pub.

    The Quiet Girl towered above that nonsense, attentive as it was to the deepest poignancies of family life in rural Ireland. Catherine Clinch, the wee girl who out-acted the big-budget actors of the ‘Banshees’, should at least have been awarded the recovered miniature donkey. They were obviously made for one another.

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