As I’ve mentioned before, Belgium has always had image problems associated with not being one of the more exciting countries in Europe. Presumably Martin McDonagh, the plastic paddy writer-director had this idea in mind when he chose to set his eponymous film in Bruges. With its network of canals and fine buildings Bruges is often described as “the Venice of the north”, but Amsterdam and Stockholm also lay claim to this title. There is certainly no shortage of references to this, in particular the concept of Bruges, a fairytale city of perfectly preserved medieval design with its canals and narrow cobbled streets, being in such an unglamorous country. Having read the rave reviews and seen two of McDonagh’s highly acclaimed plays, two impressive amateur dramatics productions (in two quite different places) of The Cripple of Inishman (in Dromore, Co. Tyrone) and The Beauty Queen of Leenane (in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire), I was quite looking forward to this film. Although I wouldn’t call it a bad film as such, I found large chunks of it unpleasant to watch and left the cinema feeling it should never have been made.
Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell are Ken and Ray, two gangsters sent to Bruges to lie low by their boss following a botched robbery which has resulted in the accidental killing of a young boy. The comic double act, with its surreal incongruous conversations resembles that of Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Also the contrast between Gleeson’s older, wiser and more cultured father figure and Farrell’s naïve, young fool is not unlike the interplay between Ted and Dougal in Father Ted. However the juxtaposition of Tarantinoesque black humour and moralistic pathos just doesn’t work. Farrell is constantly haunted by the guilt of being a child-killer, a theme which runs through the film, interspersed with comic moments, two contrasting styles which make uncomfortable bedfellows. It’s as if McDonagh couldn’t decide whether he was writing a straight gangster film or a screwball comedy. In fact the mixing of comedy with bloody violence and serious themes of death, guilt and morality is in very bad taste. By the end of film I was disgusted by the way in which life and death decisions were being used as a vehicle for humour. Scorsese gangster flicks are not lacking in humour of course, but this is usually a diversion from the killing and violence rather than inextricably linked to it. Similarly, Tarantino films employ very black humour linked to violence, but unlike In Bruges, they, make no attempt at didactic moralising. There were in fact times during the film, when I was the only viewer in the cinema not laughing, as I just couldn’t bring myself to see the funny side of what was a very unfunny situation.
It could have worked perfectly well as an out-and-out comedy – if the comic scenes had occurred in the appropriate context. Unfortunately the overplaying of the moralistic bullshit, the underlying themes of religion, guilt and suicide, not to mention the unpleasant scenes which accompany the humour tend to get in the way of laughs. On the other hand, it wouldn’t have worked as a straight gangster film. The cartoonish nature of the characters, totally implausible situations and string of unlikely coincidences would have made this impossible. The film ends up as a confused mish-mash of Get Carter/Lock Stock and two smoking barrels and various other British gangster movies, Tarantino, and Father Ted with a sprinkling of David Lynch thrown in for good measure, a combination which simply doesn’t work.
What’s also intensely irritating is Farrell’s character, who borders on the stereotypical Irish charm-filled natural born bullshitter- loveable rogue-with-the-gift-of-the-gab-type who indulges in some rather elaborate eyebrow acrobatics, although is far from loveable. Ralph Fiennes is the cockney godfather who sends his “employees”, Ken and Ray to Bruges, while they await his instructions. His character is something of a Michael Caine wannabe who succeeds in sounding like Caine, but physically bears a passing resemblance to a tall, thin Graeme Souness.
There is a strong supporting cast of colourful characters, who form a microscosm of life’s rich paegant within the unlikely setting of Bruges – Jimmy, an American dwarf film actor, addicted to horse tranquilisers, Chloe, a young Belgian woman who has a romantic fling with Ray, her psychotic skinhead ex-boyfriend, Yuri, an eccentric arms dealer and Marie, a pregnant hotel owner who ends up acting as a symbolic link with Ray’s guilty conscience.
On the plus side there are some interesting plot twists and some good camerawork. Shots of a solitary swan on the canal at night, silhouetted ducks flying overhead amidst the ornate bridges and gothic spires capture the spirit of Bruges in winter. There is also a memorable comic scene early on involving Farrell and some overweight American tourists. It’s actually not a bad advert for the Bruges tourist industry. There is one scene in which Farrell and Gleeson are in a cosy bar sipping fine Belgian beers with mellow jazz playing in the background, safe from the winter chill and leaden skies outside which almost makes you want to go there for a pre-Christmas weekend break.
Overall though, it’s just not my glass of Hoegaarden. “In fucking Bruges!” Farrell’s character, unimpressed by his employer’s choice of hideout blurts out at one point.
In fucking bad taste more like.