The Guardian view on Irish film: laughing all the way to the Oscars
News that Ireland had hoovered up 14 Oscar nominations rang out this week from Louth to Limerick. Nine of them were for the black comedy The Banshees of Inisherin, which finally overtook the national record of seven held since 1994 by Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father. Such is the pile-up that Colin Farrell, who stars in Banshees as one of two feuding friends in a remote island community, will compete for the best actor gong with Paul Mescal, from the British-made father-and-daughter duet Aftersun.
Films about Ireland and its people are not rarities in the Oscar stakes: Kenneth Branagh’s British-made Belfast bagged seven nominations last year; an adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s emigration novel Brooklyn, co-produced by the UK, Ireland and Canada, took three in 2016, and The Crying Game, by Ireland’s most garlanded film director, Neil Jordan, was nominated for six awards and won one in 1993. Banshees is a passion project for its writer, director and co-producer Martin McDonagh, who is an international player, with three Oscar nominations and a win already under his belt.
None of this detracts from the film’s achievements, which include nods for best picture, director and original score, as well as for four of its performances. But it is not breaking new ground in quite the same way as The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin), an outstanding directorial debut from Colm Bairéad, which could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of this year’s contenders, but has become Ireland’s first nominee for best international film because of its use of the Irish language (it is also up for a foreign language Bafta).
The Quiet Girl is an adaptation of an English-language novella, Foster, by Claire Keegan. There is a confidence in its mix of Irish and English that echoes the chutzpah of the industry that produced it. Ireland has a tradition of wooing and nurturing artists with tax breaks that goes back to the late 1960s. Its support for writers has created the lively literary culture that produced Sally Rooney, author of Normal People, a television adaptation of which gave Mescal his big break.
Though still relatively small, the government calculates that the audio-visual sector is currently worth more than €1bn to the economy, employing 12,000 people. It has been pouring resources into it, both at home – where a huge new studio complex is due to open in Limerick next year – and abroad: its film agency, Screen Ireland, last month signed a landmark agreement with France. It is no stranger to the sort of schmoozing that wins friends and influences Hollywood juries.
This has placed it in pole position to capitalise on the insatiable hunger for skills and facilities generated by the international boom in streaming, while also enabling niche subcultures to develop, such as a thriving horror film scene. The production spend on feature films, documentaries, animation and TV drama rose by 40% between 2019 and 2021, according to Screen Ireland, with international activity up by 45%. Far from a wishy-washy handout culture, this is an economic strategy that deserves its own place on the podium. The penny-pinching British government should take note.