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February 17, 2008

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Movie Review – In Bruges (2008)

by HELEN GEIB

In Bruges follows the comic and sometimes violent misadventures of Ray (Colin Farrell), a hapless aspiring hitman, and his much more capable mentor in the business, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), over a long weekend in Bruges, Belgium. This is a very, very funny movie, but its true genius is its seemingly inexhaustible capacity for reconciling contradictory elements. It is in turns broadly comic and delicately dramatic, vulgar and subtle, grotesque and tender.

Ray and Ken are in Bruges on the orders of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a shadowy underworld figure who goes way back with Ken and is his sometime employer. Harry sent them there ostensibly to lie low after a botched job in London. The job was Ray’s first time pulling the trigger, and he mistakenly killed a bystander as well as his target. The unintended killing set the plot in motion and as the film proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that its repercussions are driving the story.

At Ken’s insistence, he and Ray spend a lot of time touring Bruges. Ken is enchanted by the city, a beautifully preserved medieval walled town. Ray would rather be in a pub, and preferably a pub anywhere but in Bruges. He hates the place, a feeling that persists even after he meets a beautiful local woman who likes him. Other characters that cross his path do even less to endear him to the place, however much they contribute to the general comic mayhem and the audience’s pleasure.

Ray may liken Bruges to Hell (and frequently does), but it is in fact his Purgatory. Lurking just under the comic surface is a compelling and touching story of repentance and, perhaps, salvation. The drama of Ray’s character arc is beautifully integrated into the comedy right through to the final scene. It never feels forced or like an intrusive overlay onto the story, as it could easily have done in a less skillfully conceived and executed film.

The audience is more likely to agree with Ken than with Ray about the merits of Bruges as a destination for a weekend getaway. As the camera glides over streetscapes, outdoor cafes, canals (the source of the city’s appellation “the Venice of the North”), pubs, churches, town squares, and museums, I imagine many viewers will be mentally adding Bruges to the list of places they want to go someday.

Delightful and interesting as the city is, the real star of the show is unquestionably Farrell. His is an absolutely fantastic comic/dramatic performance. Gleeson is also excellent; his Ken acts as a fine straight man to Farrell’s Ray in their comedy routines, and he is equally adept at drawing out the pathos of his own character’s story. Fiennes and the rest of the supporting cast deliver distinctive character turns that ably contribute to the comedy.

In Bruges was written and directed by Martin McDonagh. A playwright, this is his second feature film. It is well directed and exceptionally well written. Let’s hope we see more films from McDonagh, especially as a writer.

4 stars


3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Doc
    Feb 22 2008

    The choice of Belgium was inspired. Just as the characters struggle with impossible contradictions in their own lives, they are presented with locals (and local visitors) who embody the impossible contradictions that define modern Belgium. It’s the center of a new Europe; the seat of some of its oldest culture; yet a country with all the internal cohesion of former Jugoslavia, where real and potential dissolution is an omnipresent combination of fear and absurdity.

  2. Miriam
    Feb 23 2008

    I can hear the pitch for this movie, “odd-couple buddies, tough London hitmen of course, hiding out in – are you ready for this – Belgium! at Christmas time! The poor marketing guy must have thought he got sucker-punched when he actually saw the film, though judging by the promotion he still hasn’t.

    I really liked this movie but I wasn’t expecting one with such big themes of personal responsibility, the meaning of life, redemptive sacrifice, and the search for love and self-worth. The religious symbols are used in an interesting way; is Ken’s path to the tower started when he touches the relic of Christ’s ‘blood”. There’s material for good conversation in this film!

  3. Helen
    Feb 23 2008

    Music is also used in a very interesting way, particularly in the song selections that accompany critical scenes. The music is prominently featured in the mix of sound, images and action so that the song functions as part of the scene and not simply background to it.

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