Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Two contract killers, their mark, a seductive woman. A philosophical road trip towards death, though it’s not entirely clear who will die and who will live. Psychological games, tense stand-offs, sudden violence. You may not be able to name any specific title, but it still sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Tarantino, McDonagh, or indeed Hemingway. Cheap suits, hidden guns, strong language: hitmen make for very effective cinema.
No, this isn’t another post on The Road. (I’ve written interminable entries about one Nick Cave-scored film, I don’t need to add another one at this time.) It’s about the book I’ve just finished reading: Must You Go?, a memoir by Antonia Fraser about her life with Harold Pinter. I’m usually not much into memoirs and biographies – I’m very much a fiction reader – but this one was a present from a friend, and a fitting one; I’d directed that friend in a student production of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter 13 years ago.
Fraser’s book is eminently readable, even if during the middle third or so it feels like it consists primarily of encounters with famous people and praises of Pinter’s writing – though obviously one wouldn’t go to a widow’s memoir for an in-depth appraisal of an author’s literary output. Must You Go? is also a sad book, as its final 100 pages lead up to the death that answers its titular question in the depressingly affirmative. But throughout the book there are passages that made me smile, grin and every now and then even laugh out loud. And there’s something so wonderfully British about the diary entry that describes what happened after Antonia Fraser told her husband at the time, Hugh Fraser, about her affair with Harold Pinter:
In the end I summoned Harold round. He drank whisky, Hugh drank brandy. I sat. In a surreal scene, Hugh and Harold discussed cricket at length, then the West Indies, then Proust. I started to go to sleep on the sofa. Harold politely went home. (p. 23)
After I killed him, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through – “Get the fuck out of London, you dumb fucks. Get to Bruges.” I didn’t even know where Bruges fucking was.
It’s in Belgium.
Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is an effective, strangely affecting black comedy. It’s by no means a great movie, but what it does it does tremendously well. Many of the reviews compare it to Tarantino’s films and to the modern Brit gangster flicks such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but both of these comparisons miss the persuasive streak of sadness that runs through the film.
Clearly there are elements of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but these similarities only go skin deep. (Two humanised hitmen spouting funny, quotable lines.) A more apt comparison would be Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, both in its absurdity and in the way its characters are acutely aware of their guilt yet unable to verbalise their feelings. Both Pinter’s early play and McDonagh’s film work as comedy, yet it wouldn’t be fair to either to dismiss them as just that.
A lot of the sadness that permeates (yes, I’m using that pretentious word – deal with it) the film, clearly helped by the medieval morbidity of Bruges and Carter Burwell’s simple yet effective score, comes from Brendan Gleeson. However, while Gleeson’s performance is spot on, it isn’t that different from many of his earlier dubious yet loveable characters (his best to date, as far as I can tell at least, would probably be Martin Cahill in John Boorman’s The General). For me, the true standout performance, surprisingly, was Colin Farrell, both funnier and more touching than I’ve ever seen him. (Disconcertingly, Farrell’s second best performance was in a Joel Schumacher film, Tigerland. How’s that for scary?)
In Bruges falters towards the end, with a finale that ramps up the absurdity at the price of its earlier moodiness, but the film remains a small gem composed of moments of unexpected beauty. And how often do you get the chance to see Ralph Fiennes play the Ben Kingsley part from Sexy Beast?
Coming up next (hopefully sooner than this update): Is it possible that the Goofy Beast was slightly disappointed with a Joss Whedon-penned comic? (No, not Buffy.)