In Bruges, 107 mins, rated
TBA, opening in cinemas on 4 September 2008.
[This is my review as published in the September 2008 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal]
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of In Bruges, is better known as a
playwright. His plays include The
Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of
Inishmore and, most recently, The
Pillowman. All of these plays have had productions over
the past few years in Sydney.
McDonagh is a theatre prodigy: he’s the only writer to have had four
plays running in London's West End at the same time. He was nominated
for Tony awards for Best Play for Leenane
(1998), Lonesome West (1999),
Pillowman (2005) and Inishmore (2006). Pillowman won the Laurence Olivier
Award for Best New Play in 2004. Now he has turned to film directing.
He started modestly in 2004 with a short film he wrote and directed,
called Six Shooter. It won
the 2006 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, and starred the
wonderful Irish actor Brendan Gleeson (Gangs
of New York, 2002, and The
General, 1998). McDonagh’s
first feature, In Bruges,
also stars Brendan Gleeson, along with Colin Farrell (The New World, 2005, Alexander, 2004) and Ralph Fiennes
(Spider, 2002, Schindler’s List, 1993). What a threesome of
McDonagh’s plays give you an inkling of what to expect: dark comedy,
hilarious dialogue, and moments of sudden and shocking violence.
McDonagh is often described as combining elements of JM Synge with
Harold Pinter or even David Mamet. He was born in London, but of Irish
parents, and his plays are either set in Ireland, or feature Irish
characters, or both. He’s widely admired, but he also divides
audiences. Is he a brilliant interpreter of contemporary Ireland, or
peddler of arrant caricature?
In Bruges is set, not
surprisingly, in Bruges (as the tag line says, “it’s in Belgium”).
Farrell and Gleeson are two Irish hit men, hiding out in that beautiful
medieval town on the orders of their boss, after a botched hit. We soon
find out that the hit was on a Catholic priest (an uncredited Ciaran
Hinds) – in a confessional! This is so typical of McDonagh: what’s the
most outrageous hit you can think of? Let’s have that.
The banter between Farrell (Ray) and Gleeson (Ken) is reminiscent of
Quentin Tarantino, too, but it seems more authentic, perhaps because of
its thorough Irishness. Ray hates Bruges. He hates history too: “It’s
all about stuff that’s already happened.” But Ken really warms to
Bruges, and tries to take Ray sightseeing. Ray’s not interested, until
he notices a film set, and an unusually short actor. “They’re
filming something! They’re filming midgets!” he cries, delightedly.
There are many amusing diversions and non-sequiturs like that before we
learn the real reason that Ray and Ken are in Bruges. In the meantime
we become tourists with them, and I’m sure that many of us will fall in
love with the town, as Ken does – and as their boss Harry (Ralph
Fiennes) has already done. Harry is a truly loathsome character, not
unlike Ben Kingsley’s frightening “Don Logan” from Sexy Beast (2000), and it’s hard to
believe he admires the chocolate-box good looks of a town like Bruges.
But he’s adamant: Bruges is beautiful, and Ray and Ken should go
In Bruges succeeds for many
reasons. It’s not just the quirky characters, the funny dialogue or the
unexpected directions of the plotline. McDonagh has an uncanny sense of
character and plot, but we expect that from an award-winning
playwright. What I didn’t expect was his assured visual ability: In Bruges looks, in turn,
wonderful, menacing, fairytale, dangerous, mysterious and
fun. In several scenes we actually seem to enter a painting
by Hieronymus Bosch. This is particularly wonderful because Ray and Ken
have earlier been to a museum to see Bosch’s Judgment Day, and Ken has
tried to explain it to Ray, who gives us this priceless explanation of
Purgatory: “Purgatory's kind of like the in-betweeny one. You weren't
really shit, but you weren't all that great either. Like Tottenham.”
Inevitably, there is a Judgment Day coming for Ray and Ken. And, like
most of Bosch, it will not be pretty. But it will be moving.