Thursday, November 4, 2010

Unsung Heroes: The Cinematography of In Bruges

Hi, everybody. This is Michael C here from Serious Film and this week I'm excited to be writing about one of my very favorite films of the last decade, one that improves dramatically which each repeated viewing. So lets get to the overlooked element of this largely overlooked gem.

One could argue that a lot of work was done for Eigil Bryld when director Martin McDonagh decided to shoot on location in the breathtakingly beautiful Belgian city of Bruges. But as cinematographer for In Bruges he couldn't be content to merely do justice to his gorgeous setting. The cliche is that a setting is like another character in a story, but in the case of this movie the city of Bruges features as prominently in the plot as it does in the title. Bryld succeeds in using the look of the movie to add depth and texture to the story, implying things left unsaid and underlining the film's themes in unforgettable fashion.

Take the character of Ken, played by Brendan Gleeson. While the other character's get showier emotions to play - Ray's guilt, Harry's explosive frustration - Ken's arc is an internal one, subtle enough that one could be forgiven for missing it altogether on first viewing. Over the course of the story Ken, a professional killer, is compelled to listen to the better angels of his nature and put his own life on the line in order to spare Ray. This transition is never stated explicitly. Instead it is communicated to the audience visually through the looks of peace that wash over Gleeson's face as Bruges envelops him in its hazy golden glow. In this shot Ken is on the outside looking in at a picture of perfect happiness that his occupation will never allow him to experience. 

Bryld's work here isn't just beautiful for its own sake. It's actually doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the story.

When it comes to the more explicit story, Bryld and McDonagh are able to frame the picturesque qualities of the "perfectly preserved medieval town" so that they are as inescapable as Ray's crushing Catholic guilt. The religious imagery and architecture are omnipresent. It could seem like overkill that the film's climax is literally staged in a Bosch painting of Judgment Day come to life, but the beauty of the scenes images so justifies the scene's existence on their own that any symbolism is able to hide in plain sight.

It's also worth noting that in addition to carrying the story's thematic weight, the camerawork of In Bruges also goes a long way towards delivering the funny. McDonagh and Bryld are great at composing shots of Gleeson and Farrell together to emphasize how mismatched they are with each other and how out of place they are in Bruges. The framing gets laughs on its own.

Bryld's filming of In Bruges gives the movies as memorable a picture of a place as we've had in recent years. His vision of Bruges could stand up to comparison with Robert Kraskers evocation of Vienna in The Third Man, which is pretty much the highest praise I have to give.

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