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In Bruges
cast: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clemence Poesy

director: Martin McDonagh

103 minutes (18) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
This is a thoroughly brilliant British gangster flick which can be watched in back-to-back viewings with no drop-off in enjoyment.

First-time hitman Ray (Colin Farrell, Minority Report, Daredevil, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus) bungles his debut, and is sent to Bruges with minder Ken (Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter, Beowulf) because boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes, Harry Potter) had happy memories of a childhood trip there and wants Ray to have a nice little break in a magical place before Ken rubs him out.

Ray hates Bruges with a vengeance and anyway is wracked with suicidal guilt over the outcome of the botched hit which resulted in the death of a child. Ken is enchanted with the medieval charm of Bruges and takes the opportunity for a bit of cultural tourism. Ray's life begins to turn around when he meets the beautiful Chloe (Clemence Poesy, Harry Potter), who is taking a break from rolling tourists with her sociopathic sometime boyfriend Eirik to deal drugs to the crew of a feature film being shot in the city. Any chance of redemption for Ray is foiled when his escape from the city is confounded and Harry Waters travels over in person to tidy things up.

The film is wonderfully but gently allusive to both theatrical and cinematic traditions. The first port of call would be Beckett's Waiting For Godot, as Ken and Ray wait for Harry Waters' phone call, but there are clear links to the two manipulated killers in the late Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter, which owes its own debt to Beckett. Some commentators have compared Ralph Fiennes portrayal of Harry with Ben Kingsley's monstrous Don from Sexy Beast, but the part is in a tradition of South London hoodlums that stretches back to Johnny Shannon's Harry Flowers in Performance. When the wounded Ray stumbles into a dream sequence, drawing on imagery from Bosch, being shot for the film-within-a-film, the first impression as the snowflakes drift down into the square is of James Mason as Johnny McQueen cornered by the authorities in Odd Man Out.

None of the above references are hammered into the viewer but are subliminally present for anyone with an abiding interest in the theatre and film. Likewise the themes surrounding childhood, and the treatment of children, colour the behaviour of the characters. Ray's target in the disastrous hit was a Catholic priest; "Harry Waters says hello!" The child accidentally shot by Ray while in prayer was clutching a piece of paper apparently listing the failings he was seeking forgiveness for, 'being sad', and 'being moody'. The viewer wonders what a priest might have done to incur the murderous wrath of a gangster, the child's presence, and Harry's views on children and sense of obligation, he is revealed to have killed the killer of Ken's wife, suggest a scenario. Ken says to Ray that although he killed the little boy he might have saved the next one, but Ray fails to pick up on the allusion pointing out that if he were to become a doctor he would need exams. There is a link back to Beckett's All That Fall where Dan, who may in fact have given way to murderous impulses, asks, "Did you ever wish to kill a child."

References to Don't Look Now recall the child's death at the start of that film that led the parents to seek escape and distraction in Venice. On his date with Chloe, Ray makes a tasteless joke about the child abuse cases in Belgium. Chloe chides him revealing that she knew one of the victims, before relenting and saying she did this to discomfort Ray who, along with us, is not entirely convinced. Ray himself often behaves like a spoiled child, with Ken his big brother or else father-figure. There is a beautifully observed scene with Ray preparing for his date with Chloe, and then presenting himself for Ken's approval.

Above all this film is a comedy but one in which the laugh-out-loud moments are modulated by the darker comedy of Beckett, Pinter and Chekhov. Some critics have bemoaned the action finale where Harry Waters goes on a shooting-spree in the streets of Bruges, but that violent conclusion is inevitable from the earliest introduction of Harry's character, "Don't be stupid. This is the shootout." Equally, locked into his exaggerated sense of what is right, when Harry shoots Jimmy the dwarf actor and mistakes the corpse for that of a child, his next action is inescapable. Whatever the irony of Ray attempting to tell Harry that what he has done is alright, and that his victim, although an innocent bystander, is really an adult. Despite the telegraphing of the ordinance-heavy finale, beautifully shot nevertheless, the final moments of the film and Ray's dying thoughts on hell and Bruges are priceless.

In Bruges contains the word fuck and its derivative 126 times; a fact celebrated in one of the DVD extras. Other extras celebrate the town of Bruges itself and some of its cultural weirdness, the usual gag reel, and deleted scenes.

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