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]


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 Anglo-Celtic actors!

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 sightseeing.

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.