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Film Review: In Bruges

In Bruges (2008; Directed by Martin McDonagh)

Acclaimed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s superbly penned, consistently entertaining, and oddly moving film debut In Bruges reinforces three things above all: Brendan Gleeson absolutely rules, Colin Farrell should only ever act when he is being allowed to employ his native Irish accent, and Belgium is extremely funny.

The core humourous conceit of In Bruges should not really prove as resilient as it does. McDonagh’s film-long joke constitutes the setting of a creatively bawdy and occasionally brutally bloody gangster crime flick in a lovely, preserved Flemish medieval city of undeniable middle-class touristic charm. The real Bruges is not nearly the fairy-tale historical time-capsule that McDonagh’s film requires it to be, of course; brand-name consumer goods shops line the narrow streets near the Grote Markt, reflecting an urban setting as dependent on the demands of contemporary global capitalism as any other more modern-seeming location. You do indeed see a “dual carriageway” upon leaving the very modern train station, and despite one character’s protestations, there probably are bowling alleys in Bruges (or at least in its suburbs).

But then the stardust-sprinkled version of Bruges in this film is more about amplifying the location’s ironic juxtaposition with the chosen subject matter of sex, violence, drug use, copious swearing, and general bad behaviour on display (the pinnacle of which surely must be a particular line about a girl on a teeter-totter of such cartoonish offensiveness that it comes across as a parody of the very concept of offensive language). And the chosen milieu is soaked in medieval Catholicism and is therefore ripe for thematic exploitation by an Irish writer concerned with an exploration of guilt, atonement, forgiveness, sacrifice and redemption.

Much of this thematic material is focused on Farrell’s Ray, a rookie hitman who botches his first job but good (by which I mean but bad). Bundled off to lay low in Bruges by his seasoned partner Ken (Gleeson) on the orders of their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Ray is not too thrilled at the prospect of sightseeing and expanding his cultural boundaries in the sleepy, charming Flemish city. In fact, he refers to Bruges repeatedly as “a shithole”, and mostly wants to hang out in pubs and chase women (one in particular, played by Clémence Poésy, reciprocates the interest). Ken drags him along for some history and culture while they await further instructions from Harry, with no small amount of resistance shown by Ray.

But in a nice, sophisticated moment, Ray’s belligerence is revealed to be concealing intense shame and guilt about his moral misdeed. The catalysts are two showcase paintings the pair of criminals view at Bruges’ Groeningemuseum: Hieronymous Bosch’s The Last Judgment (whose inventive, head-spinning imagery is revisited in a film-within-a-film indie production in the movie’s closing scene) and Gerard David’s diptych The Judgment of Cambyses, depicting a corrupt Persian judge being condemned to death and then flayed alive (it once hung in the chambers of Bruges’ aldermen, as unsubtle a reminder to toe the ethical line as a politician could ask for). The latter in particular visibly disgusts Ray, but it also works its message under his skin and precipitates a downward spiral. It’s left to Ken to decide whether to save Ray from both himself and from the consequences of his actions (or his sins, to get Catholic about it), or to allow moral judgment to catch up with his young counterpart.

McDonagh’s mixture of clear-eyed exploration of moral themes and hilarious, fabulously tawdry humour (witness Ray’s altercation with what he assumed to be an American couple in a restaurant, or the dwarf actor [Jordan Prentice] in the indie film who hires Dutch prostitutes, uses recreational drugs, and predicts an apocalyptic racial war) will not be everyone’s cup of tea, certainly. But with so much whip-smart dialogue and fine performances (Farrell is fantastic, and it’s wonderful to see Gleeson in a role worthy of his talents), any viewer with a slightly-twisted sense of humour would be hard-pressed not to enjoy much of In Bruges. It’s a sharp and surprising contemporary arthouse cult classic in theg gradual making. And anyway, how can a fairy-tale town not be someone’s fucking thing?

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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