There is something about including a city name in the title of film that gives it the imprimatur of quality. Casablanca, Fargo, Manhattan, Encino Man. OK, maybe not the last one. But In Bruges, a 2008 film starring Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell fits nicely beside the first three.
Gleeson and Farrell are a pair of British hit men laying low “in Bruges” for a couple of weeks on orders from their boss, a foul-mouthed Ralph Fiennes. Gleeson and Farrell botched their last job, a fact that lays heavy on their conscience, Farrell in particular.
Upon arriving in Bruges Gleeson immediately decides to take in the city’s abundant culture. Farrell is less enthused and spends much of the film insisting that Bruges is nothing special. So, in setting after setting, the film sets off to prove Farrell wrong.
Just a stone’s throw from the North Sea, Bruges is in the Flemish region of Belgium and the dominant spoken language is Dutch, but German is common also. Bruges is also a quite close to Belgium’s better-known cities of Brussels and Antwerp, both of which are around an hour away to the southeast and east, respectively (Bruges is actually less than five hours by car from London thanks to The Chunnel).
Though a small city with a population of around 117,000, Bruges is a compelling blend of old world charm and modern convenience. It is best known for its Medieval Architecture, which acts as a key supporting character in In Bruges. So, too do Bruges’ museums and other cultural destinations. A famous Heironymous Bosch painting which hangs in the Groeningemuseum is the catalyst for a pivotal discussion in the film.
Bruges prospered during the Middle Ages as a major commercial destination thanks to its wide canals and booming textile trade. Its wealth brought in the world’s finest artists and architects. The only sculpture of Michelangelo’s to have left Italy, Madonna and Child, is in the Church of Our Lady.
There was a time in the 1500s that Bruges was twice the size of London. But shortly thereafter the Zwin, which connected the city to the North Sea, silted up, forcing the city to cede its place as a commercial centerpiece. For four centuries the city “slept” according to some. It became a minor city.
But then at the turn of the 20th Century new canals were constructed and Bruges gradually regained its standing. Though the textile industry has since gone the cultural community thrives and Bruges main business is now tourism. Concert halls and theatres are in large supply. One of the most popular concerts are a series from a 13th Century belfry that holds a carillon of 48 bells.
Bruges prominence was made official when it was recognized in 2002 as the European Capital of Culture. It is also a World Heritage City.
It’s enough to make one of the characters in In Bruges to remark, “I know I’m awake but it feels like I’m dreaming.” And most memorably: “It’s a fairy tale city.” Did the Colin Farrell character finally come around? You’ll have to watch In Bruges to find out.