Thursday, January 17, 2008
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)
Ken loach is a director known for making small, personal films about working class folks in the U.K., often with a distinct social and political viewpoint. Movies like 1998’s My Name Is Joe, starring one of my favorite actors, Peter Mullan, as a recovering alcoholic trying to rebuild his life in the poor neighborhoods of Glasgow, are his stock and trade. With this in mind, it may seem strange that Loach would try and tackle a sweeping subject like the Irish War of Independence, as such large-scale historical fare seems ill-suited to his style. But after watching The Wind That Shakes the Barley, it becomes apparent that this story of Irish brothers fighting against the oppressive rule of England in the 1920s is as much a Loach trademark as anything he has made. Rather than adjusting his style to cater to the breadth of the three-year war that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Loach, working from a script by Paul Laverty, studies the conflict on the small scale, using the struggles of the men from a single town as an absolutely captivating microcosm of the violence and devastation of war.
The surprise winner of the Palm d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, The Wind That Shakes the Barley stars Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) and Padraic Delaney as Damien and Teddy O’Donovan, brothers from the County Cork in southern Ireland. Damien is preparing to leave for London to work in a hospital, but when he witnesses British soldiers kill one of his friends in the film’s brutal opening scene, his conscience takes ahold of him. Soon, he joins the Irish Republican Army along with his brother and several of his childhood friends, and the young men begin to learn guerilla tactics that will help them strike back against the British Paramilitary troops occupying their town.
The film’s magnificently-paced second act follows this motley crew of soldiers as they begin their assault on the British, ambushing troop carriers and stealing arms to fuel the revolution. Loach effectively maintains a narrow focus throughout, allowing the triumphs and failures of the war to be experienced through smuggled notes and second-hand reports, adding an immediate quality to what could otherwise become stuffy historical filler. Meanwhile, the personal story of the O’Donovans and their comrades proves to be as riveting as it is tragic, from the group’s narrow escapes from British captivity to Damien’s difficult execution of a former friend-turned British informant. “I studied anatomy for five years,” He says in the conflicted moments before he pulls the trigger, “and now I'm going to shoot this man in the head...I hope this Ireland we're fighting for is worth it.”
Much like Melville’s Army of Shadows, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a thriller with a social conscience, alternating between kinetic action scenes-- excellently covered by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd-- and surprisingly engaging political exchanges as the newly established republican government wrestles responsibility for the affairs of Ireland away from the U.K. Loach’s liberal-socialist views are well on display in many of the character’s speeches, but he never allows his film to become weighted down with political rhetoric. When the controversial Anglo-Irish Treaty is reached and the O’Donovan brothers become split over its legitimacy, Loach wisely maintains a relative objectivity, not condemning or championing the position of either brother.
All the way from its harrowing beginning to its tragic final third, The Wind That Shakes the Barley proves to be one of the most rousing and affecting historical dramas to come out in some time. Loach’s cast, especially Murphy, is pitch-perfect, and Laverty’s script manages to be both thrilling and utterly realistic, casting a light on a conflict that most people in the States have probably never heard of. The seeds of discontent sewn in the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Irish Civil War that followed would affect the region for decades, and Loach’s heart-rending and poignantly intimate account of those early years is an absolutely essential film.