“It’s a fucking fairytale town, isn’t it? How can a fairytale town not be somebody’s fucking thing?” asks Ralph Fiennes’ cockney gangster Harry (Ralph Finnes) in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges.
A favourite childhood retreat of Harry’s, Bruges is the hideout to which he has sent hitmen Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) after Ray’s first hit goes terribly wrong. But things really spiral out of control when Ken realises why he’s really in Bruges: to kill Ray. The medieval Belgian town known as the “Venice of the north” soon becomes the setting for enough violence and bloodshed to keep even the most sadistic of cinemagoers satisfied.
Yes, it’s a fable set firmly within the traditions of the gangster film, and is a fine addition to the genre. The dialogue is sharp and funny, the characters compelling, but it’s the setting that makes In Bruges memorable. More than just a backdrop, Bruges itself provokes most of the witty dialogue and brings out the character quirks, for a great deal of humour is drawn from the hitmen’s contrasting views on their holiday destination. Ken, cultured and intellectual, wants to spend his time sightseeing, while Ray, finding it more than a bit boring, childishly sulks and prefers to spend his evening “stealing five grams of very-high-quality cocaine and blinding a poofy little skinhead”.
It’s easy to find oneself on Ken’s side of this argument, for McDonagh and cinematographer Eigil Bryld bring Bruges to the screen with stunning simplicity. A recurring location is the picturesque market square and the majestic belfry tower within it. Colourfully decorated for the Christmas season, the square really does look like a fairytale setting.
Ken makes his first attempt for the top of the belfry while sight-seeing. Thwarted by short change, he later pays dearly for his real ascent to – and descent from – the tower. When an angry Harry arrives in town to clean up the hitmen’s mess, the square is shrouded in imposing yet mystical fog. The ensuing tower-top shoot-out is as majestic as the tower itself. It feels like it couldn’t have been shot anywhere else: a great example of an action sequence using its geography masterfully. The film’s action is choreographed to flow perfectly with the setting throughout, creating a constant juxtaposition of the awe-inspiring architecture with the equally memorable but sharply contrasting blood and gore wrought by Harry’s arrival.
Ray describes Bruges as Hell while Ken sees it as an idyllic Heaven. For both of them it is purgatory, a place where they await inescapable judgement from the formidable Harry. Bloody carnage aside, the film’s an effective tourist advert for Bruges and has added the city to many a ‘to-visit’ list. It is indeed a fairytale and, like all the best fairytales, it is a particularly violent and beautiful one.