Saturday, 3 May 2008

in bruges (w&d martin mcdonagh)

Two hitmen who don't seem like hitmen, trapped together in a hotel room. The implicit allusion to The Dumb Waiter is made explicit by their surnames or pseudonyms: Cranham and Blakey, surnames of the actors who played Pinter's hapless assassins in a TV version of his play.

The Dumb Waiter isn't the only reference point for the literate McDonagh. The other is, of course, Godot. Bruges, the hitmen's hideaway, is in fact a purgatory, a waiting room between life and death. Ray and Ken stare at a painting by Bosch, openly discussing the likelihood of heaven, hell or the other place. In keeping with Pinter's play, these apparent hitmen don't seem come across as violent killers. Ray is raddled with doubt following the accidental killing of a boy, and Ken is coming to the end of his inglorious career.

They may not be regular hitmen, but they are, to the bone, Irishmen. McDonagh made a successful career out of presenting the lugubrious downhome wit of the Irish on the London stage (joining the vast list of Irish dramatists who have been adopted by the British). The film takes his mordant dialogue out of its Irish setting, locating it in the peculiar gothic beauty of Bruges (yet another reference is to Don't Look Now, also a fatalistic drama set in a city of canals). Liberated from its normal context, the humour is an extravagant success, not least in the scenes where the Irishmen come into contact with the various Russians, Canadians and Americans (not to mention the occasional Belgian) who people the city. McDonagh is a writer of wit and panache, and on top of this, he also directs his lead actors with a superb level of understatement, never forcing the joke, letting it tell itself. This is an art honed in the pubs, kitchens, street corners of his homeland. In a sense McDonagh is just a student of an oral tradition, but when he pulls it off, as he does so emphatically in the first hour of the movie, something fresh, funny and alive occurs. Within the straightjacketed world of genre and budgets, it's rare for a writer to be given enough rope to potentially hang himself, something McDonagh seems to have no fear of doing, to wonderful effect.

The serious stuff is perhaps more problematic. In a sense, In Bruges feels like an exercise in tension between plot and character. I would have quite happily watched Gleeson and Farrell wandering around Bruges having their misadventures, without any of the neat plotting that brings Fiennes's Harry to the city and their collective downfall. Whether Gleeson really needs to fly like a fallen angel through the Belgian night, or Farrell demands to be hunted by a psychotic is perhaps questionable, and the closing pursuit seemed like the one moment when the film retreated into banal genre, the soundtrack suddenly intruding and the denouement feeling a little bit too neat.

In Bruges never acquires the menace with which Pinter imbued The Dumb Waiter, (or Don't Look Now) and when it pushes itself towards achieving it, it comes up short. But that doesn't mean to say that McDonagh hasn't conjured something magical out of the fairy tale city, making a remarkably successful transition from stage to screen in a way that few of his contemporaries have managed. The likes of Macpherson, Penhall, Nielson, even Mendes must have watched the film through clenched teeth. Once again an idea of overwhelming simplicity works a treat. In Bruges is an indefatigably entertaining film which also gets away with a meditation on the existence of purgatory. The fact that the director nicks from the likes of Pinter, Beckett and Roeg only leads one to think: more power to his elbow. The pity of it is that more people will not be stealing from them, the old masters, on a more regular basis.

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