Bruges, a most genteel of Belgian towns, becomes a form of limbo for Ray and his more experienced colleague Ken in Martin Mc Donagh’s In Bruges. Their penance for what has happened is a prolonged stay in this town. They are both professional killers and a botched job means they have to lay low for awhile and await instructions from their boss Harry. The feeling of limbo and awaiting judgement is reinforced by how they spend their time in Bruges which includes a visit to see Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Last Judgement.
Limbo is the right word to use here as Ray and Ken are deep in guilt, atonement and forgiveness. This is quite a deeper level of film than is promised in the quite breezy trailer which seemed to promise an action comedy. Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising with Mc Donagh being behind acclaimed dark plays such as The Leenane Trilogy and the Oscar winning short film Six Shooter. The two films share an actor in Brendan Gleeson, here playing the older and more experienced Ken. He is a kind of father figure to Ray (Colin Farrell, never more charismatic) who is barely holding it together after the botched killing. To Ray, being banished to Bruges is part of their suffering whereas Ken uses it to quietly assess his life and how he has lived it. They essentially become classic Irish tourists abroad, staring at the sights and going to pubs as much as possible as they wait for the call from Harry (Ralph Fiennes).
Fiennes is a revelation when he finally shows up in the film. Channelling the same kind of energy that Ben Kinsgley used in Sexy Beast Fiennes is both frightening and very funny. He loves Bruges (‘it’s a fairytale’) and there is a terrific long take in which he talks to Ken about Bruges and in which Ken has to lie about how much Ray loves it. This scene works beautifully in both a funny and tension filled way but moves into much darker territory when Harry starts to refer to Ray in the past tense. The character of Harry is important to the themes of this film. He represents a kind of skewed morality which is played out by him in the film’s dénouement. He believes in an eye for an eye, while Ken believes in forgiveness and second chances. Ray is caught in the middle, a man lost amidst his own guilt.
The cinematography is quite beautiful in this film although to some degree it would be hard to fail with a beguilingly beautiful town such as Bruges. The acting is excellent, with Farrell in particular showing with proper direction and characterisation an astounding performance can be coaxed from him. He has never been better. Fiennes and Gleeson are as reliably excellent as ever.
There is also one of the most effective uses of a song to have been committed to film. The song On Raglan Road sung by Luke Kelly and The Dubliners is used to quite astonishing effect in this film. It would be criminal to give away more. Suffice to say it packs an emotional wallop.
This is a long way to go about saying that In Bruges is a superb film. Full of some of the best dialogue we have seen in an Irish film since The Commitments, In Bruges is a brash and confident film debut from Mc Donagh. That it is blackly funny is to be expected from as confident a writer as Mc Donagh. But underneath all the jokes, action and swearing beats a heart and it is this that is the surprising element. There is an emotional core to the film, particularly in Farrell’s performance that brings unexpected depth to, what on the surface, feels like a standard genre film. This is proper filmmaking and there is genuine excitement as to what can be expected from Mc Donagh in the years to come.