Harry Riedl is a film enthusiast from West London and this continues a series of retrospective reviews on his favourite cult classics.
Belgium and Britain have a curious relationship almost unlike any other nation in the popular imagination. This particular Englishman remembers it most fondly for a debauchery visit as part of a school trip (maybe not quite as much fun for the locals). Then there are the deep questions such as what is Belgium in the popular imagination and the answer is generally war, with Belgium being the highway to Germany and France. Beer, chocolate, and if you read the middle pages of newspapers then a lack of government and the evils of EU bureaucracy.
In Bruges is Martin McDonagh first movie (his brother’s movie The Guard has already been covered on MFR). In Bruges has already had great praise on this site as being ‘the pinnacle of black comedy’. I would also like to add to that praise. It has a very English-Irish characteristic of simultaneously humiliating a place whilst also venerating it. This is common throughout the movie from referring to the Belgium beers as ‘Gay Beers’ and constantly referring to how Bruges is just like ‘a dream’. This is reflected in the characters of the people they meet from the officious dullard at church to the pretty drug dealer and almost everything in between, including a racist dwarf and a gay skinhead.
Ray (Colin Farrel), Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Harry Walters (Ralph Fiennes) are all trained killers but have a very strong code of honour, with a foul mouthed but polite attitude. They hold either a huge disdain for the place or a great love, sometimes both simultaneously.
The movie has tributes to two significant sources. Firstly, The Dumbwaiter by Harold Pinter and the Nicolas Roeg film Don’t Look Now. These are both very interesting especially as neither is a comedy. One is classic Pinter and the other is known for traumatising young parents, neither is a barrel of laughs so how does In Bruges gain its comic nature? First and foremost it’s the dialogue between Ray and Ken, which is one part friendly banter and another part almost like a father son relationship, which in places is very funny but also touching, especially when exploring Ray’s dark secret which explains his very dramatic actions whenever a children is mentioned.
Ray’s dislike of Americans is slightly Basil Fawlty and the Germans with exclamations such as ‘that’s for the Vietnamese’ reflecting a strange desire to continue punishing America for past mistakes in the present. The nature of the humour is in many ways quite traditional of the ‘English/Irishmen abroad’, with the various prejudices, but what makes it fresh is the unusual setting which is frankly rather sinister, which suits the mood of hit men in hiding.
The role of religion is especially interesting as it has such a central role in the movie. While they are in Bruges they visit many different churches and both characters have a faith, a quiet faith of those who believe but do not practice. This faith is central and creates one of the most unwittingly comic and sad moments when Ken discovers Ray attempting suicide and tells him it’s wrong, while also having an order to kill him, showing you can find humour in the most unlikely of places. The role of purgatory is particularly clever as this has a central role in the thinking of the major characters. What is purgatory and how do you get there rather than hell or heaven? ‘You been shit but not terrible’. This religious discussion is most rare in comedies and feels like it’s being dealt with seriously despite the flippancy.
This movie uses most of the Belgian stereotypes whilst weaving a most uncommon gangster comedy about a depressive who is desperate for repentance for what he has done. The characters are well rounded, interesting and varied, with the three characters having the most impressive performances. Ralph Fiennes is particularly good playing against type. It’s polished, nicely shot and neatly done especially in the final sequence. What’s so impressive about this movie is that it feels very self-controlled and doesn’t feel like the debut movie by a first time director.