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Producers: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin and Martin McDonagh   Director: Martin McDonagh   Screenplay: Martin McDonagh   Cast: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan, Gary Lydon, Pat Shortt, Jon Kenny, Sheila Flitton, David Pearse, Bríd Ní Neachtain and Aaron Monaghan   Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Grade: A-

At once a bleakly funny and surprisingly poignant tale of broken families and broken friendships, playwright Martin McDonagh’s fourth film as a writer-director reunites Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, the co-stars of his first, “In Bruges.” Its setting is very different from that darkly seriocomic crime thriller, but it inhabits the same territory of mordant humor mixed with discord and pain where all of McDonagh’s work, for both stage and screen, has been located.    

Inisherin is a small island off Ireland’s west coast.  In the spring of 1923, specifically on April 1 of that year, when the so-called Irish Civil War between the provisional government of the Irish Free State established by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and the Irish Republican Army that opposed the treaty is still raging, burly Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), a fiddler and composer of folk tunes, announces to Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell), his daily drinking companion, that he wants nothing more to do with him; refusing even to respond to Pádraic’s knocks at his window, he merely tells the incredulous fellow that he doesn’t like him anymore.  It’s a sudden rupture that reflects the one that continuing between fighters who’d been partners in the Irish War of Independence, the violence of which can sometimes be discerned occurring on the mainland.  And like that conflict, it results in the shedding of blood and flesh.

At first Pádraic, noticing the date, assumes that Colm’s break with him is an April’s Fool joke.  But Doherty is adamant, the only explanation he ever offers being that he no longer wants to waste time on the trivial chitchat he’s been exchanging with the simple, clueless Súilleabháin, who shares a ramshackle house with his bookish, disaffected sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and his beloved miniature donkey Jenny; declaring Pádraic dull (to which his sister responds, “He’s always ben dull”), Colm now prefers to spend his days composing and sharing his skill with outsiders like Declan (Aaron Monaghan), who come to jam and study with him. 

Devastated by Colm’s rejection, Pádraic badgers him to reconsider.  Finally infuriated by the intrusions, Colm issues an ultimatum: every time Pádraic speaks to him, he’ll cut off one of his own fingers. Certainly he’s not serious, one thinks, but this is McDonagh terrain, and you shouldn’t discount an obstinate man’s words.

While this mini-war is waging, the few other characters in the village observe the bizarre goings-on while getting on with their own lives.  Jovial barman Jonjo (Pat Shortt) endeavors to keep the peace in the pub while perpetual customer Gerry (Jon Kenny) looks on uncomprehending.  Mentally challenged Dominic Kearney (Barry Keoghan), repeatedly brutalized by his father Peadar (Gary Lydon), the brutish local constable, struggles to connect with his neighbors, acts as a surprisingly shrewd sounding-board for confused Pádraic and shyly proposes to Siobhán, who tries to be kind in rejecting him while debating whether she should leave the island—and her brother—for more promising prospects elsewhere.  The village priest (David Pearse) seems at a loss to contend with the locals’ problems, prodding Colm in the confessional about the dangers of despair until the supposed penitent’s snappy responses leave him fuming, while gossip Mrs. O’Riordan (Bríd Ní Neachtain) aims to know everything about everybody, even prying open letters in the post to scan people’s secrets and then rebuking anyone who complains that they never tell her anything.  And lurking behind every corner is aged harpy Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), a crone dressed in black who issues waspish prophecies in a vinegary tone with malicious satisfaction.  Even the animals—Jenny and Colm’s ever-loyal Border collie—are drawn into the conflict that ultimately seems to overtake the entire island, leaving embittered desolation in its wake.

“The Banshees of Inisherin” is like a dark twentieth-century fairytale, carrying almost mythic overtones, with a sense of time and place masterfully caught by McDonagh and his collaborators.  Production designer Mark Tildesley, costumer Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh and cinematographer Ben Davis, using locations on Inishmore and Achill Island to often stunning effect in his widescreen visuals, and editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen create a feel both ruggedly real yet somehow otherworldly, while Carter Burwell adds a suitably distinctive score.  The script is innately theatrical, having more in common with McDonagh’s stage work than his other films, but thanks to their efforts it never seems stagey.

And the performances are impeccable.  Gleeson brings his gruffness and bellicosity to Colm, making him a veritable force of nature, as implacable as the island cliffs or the stone walls lining its roads even as his digital losses mount.  In what might very well be the best acting he’s ever done, Farrell brings a sweet, sad soulfulness to Pádraic, though as his losses mount, an embarrassed steeliness creeps in (witness the cruel trick he plays on Declan to get him to depart).  In that case, however, he immediately regrets what he’s done; at the end, he’s become as stone cold and determined as Colm.

All the rest of the cast fit perfectly with McDonagh’s conception, but two must be singled out: Condon, who is luminous as Siobhán, whose desire to escape what she sees as a place of petty men is perfectly understandable, and Keoghan, whose turn as Dominic is mannered, but in a fashion that reveals the character rather than turning it into a caricature of the town fool.

“The Banshees of Inishiren” is a satisfyingly odd Gaelic fable, combining whimsy with bitter truths about human frailty.  Its combination of humor and gruesomeness is typical of McDonagh, and shows him at the peak of his wonderfully idiosyncratic game.        


Producers: Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi and Robin Swicord   Director: Greta Gerwig   Screenplay: Greta Gerwig   Cast:  Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Jayne Houdyshell   Distributor: Sony Entertaiment/Columbia Pictures

Grade:  A-

 Unlike many American classics, Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 1868 novel has been remarkably fortunate in its screen adaptations.  The 1949 MGM version directed by Mervyn LeRoy with June Allyson (and Elizabeth Taylor) is, as it were, the weak sister here, but George Cukor’s 1933 film with Katharine Hepburn remains outstanding, and Gillian Anderson’s 1994 remake with Winona Ryder holds up well.  Those two are now joined by Greta Gerwig’s well-nigh perfect adaptation, which captures the spirit of Alcott’s work with grace, affection and great good humor, while being both touching and a mite daring.

The “daring” part arises from Gerwig’s decision to tell the familiar story of would-be writer Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), her three sisters—down-to-earth Meg (Emma Watson), musically-inclined Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and precocious Amy (Florence Pugh)—and their devoted mother Marmee (Laura Dern) not in straightforward chronological order, but via shifting time frames—a device that could have a disorienting effect were her script, and Nick Hoy’s editing, less skillful.  As it is, the two manage to tie the various threads together so that nothing is lost, and the emotional high points stand out all the more strongly. 

Gerwig also draws a clear connection between Jo, the aspiring author who brings her sensationalist stories to the brusque publisher Dashwood (Tracy Letts, who’s quickly becoming an indispensable character actor) and Alcott herself.  The semi-autobiographical element of the narrative has rarely been so effectively conveyed. 

The Marches are, of course, longing for the return of the paterfamilias (Bob Odenkirk, unfortunately rather flat), who’s been injured while serving as a Union chaplain in the Civil War.  Not that they are entirely alone on their Concord homestead.  Their wealthy neighbor, the widower Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper, as subtly controlled here as he is coarsely obvious in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), consistently shows the family his support especially in times of crisis, and his grandson Theodore (Timothée Chalamet), affectionately called Laurie, becomes an integral part of the family unit, suitor to Jo, though—as quickly becomes clear—not precisely a welcome one as far as she’s concerned.

And then there’s the formidable Aunt March (Meryl Streep, in another of her take-no-prisoners supporting turns), the rich old lady who’s intent on securing good marriages for her nieces—good in the Jane Austen sense.  Her emphasis on their need to find rich husbands, of course—a point not so obliquely made as well by Dashwood in his editorial observations on Jo’s stories—is of course derailed first by Meg’s decision to wed for love—to impoverished schoolteacher  John Brooke (James Norton), Laurie’s erstwhile tutor, and then by unexpected choices made by both Jo and Amy despite her offers of sage advice—and foreign travel. 

One additional character must, of course, be mentioned: learned Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), whom Jo meets during her stay in a Boston rooming house.  He’s the figure most altered by Gerwig from Alcott’s portrayal, but it’s an entirely forgivable change.

There’s always been an underlying feminist slant to “Little Women,” of course, but Gerwig brings it to the fore, and Ronan, with her feisty performance, italicizes it.  In fact, it’s the females who dominate here.  Scanlen’s recessive quality reflects the poignant arc of Beth, and Watson’s role as a doting wife makes Meg agreeably domestic, but Pugh brings the sometimes irritating Amy pungently to life, both as a child and later as young woman dissatisfied with her own talent—and acutely conscious of not equaling her older sister.  Dern is almost as impressive as loving Marmee, who gets the opportunity to show her underlying steeliness even as she teaches her daughters the virtues of charity.

By contrast the males are for the most part rather bland.  Though Letts and Cooper are both effective in very different ways, Norton and Garrel fade into the background along with Odenkirk.  There is one exception to the rule—Chalamet, who embodies Laurie so completely, yet so unconventionally, in terms of both the character’s studied nonchalance and his desperate passion, that he very nearly steals the film. 

Gerwig’s film also scores in visual terms.  Jess Gonchor’s production design and Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are entirely convincing, and Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography captures it all without undue flourish or fuss.  Alexandre Desplat’s orchestral score might occasionally seem a bit much, but after all “Little Women” is a work of big emotions, and the music rises to the occasion when they erupt, while delicately underlining the quieter moments.

Some people might, of course, ask whether we needed another version of “Little Women.”  The answer is that perhaps every generation does in fact deserve a retelling of its own—and if so, Gerwig’s certainly does the present age proud.