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The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Studio: IFC First Take
Directed by: Ken Loach; Screenplay by: Paul Laverty; Starring: Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham, Orla Fitzgerald and Mary Riordan

Mar 24, 2007 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

In the 40 years that Ken Loach has been directing feature films, the iconic English director has favored a working-class realism that has made some of his work seem more foreign to U.S. audiences than actual foreign-language imports. It’s often noted that his films Riff-Raff (1990) and Sweet Sixteen (2002) were subtitled for U.S. release because the dialects of his roughhewn English and Scottish characters, respectively, were too thick. And though Loach has never been lured to Hollywood by the studios, he did film Bread and Roses (2000) in Los Angeles. Typical of his socio-political-leaning films, Bread and Roses deals with the tribulations and sacrifices made by L.A. janitors in their attempts at unionizing for better working conditions. Funny that a director from across the Atlantic can make a far better film about Latinos in Los Angeles than Hollywood can, but in doing so, Loach illustrates how conflicts of class and ruling power transcend language, borders and history.

It’s this preoccupation in Loach’s work that also fuels the heart-wrenching The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a striking and sober war film set against the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Although the treaty ended Ireland’s War of Independence with the British government, those who opposed it turned against its advocates and the Irish Civil War was spawned. At the center of the film’s turmoil is Damien (Cillian Murphy), a medical student who has earned a place to train as a doctor in London. When a village friend is brutally murdered by Black and Tans, the British force deployed to suppress the Irish Republican Army, Damien wavers on his calling. Ireland being an impoverished nation, Damien can do much good for his brethren as a doctor, but the urgency of his country’s fight against British occupancy wins out, and he volunteers to join a flying column, a mobile guerrilla unit that trains to ambush British soldiers in the countryside. Damien’s older brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) is already a ringleader entrenched in the fight, and childhood friend Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) sneaks intelligence to the column.

What Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty deliberately examine in the film, with relevance to today’s global conflicts, are the inherent contradictions that complicate fights for ideals. Do they ever end, and at what cost? When is the time finally to lay down arms? Damien is a doctor who learns to kill, and his sense that an irrevocable life has been sacrificed instills his commitment. Because he’s invested his life in the pursuit of a Free State, it’s unlikely that he will give up the cause until it pays dividends. Sort of like an Irish Michael Corleone, the clean kid who gets swept up in the fray, Damien’s education steers him not away from danger, but toward the role of outspoken, if reluctant, leader. Murphy is commendable as Damien, and though his blue eyes often are shadowed in the film, they suddenly pierce through in an emotional confrontation between Damien and Teddy.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2006, is epic for its historical implications yet intimate in its depiction. There are no elaborate battle scenes with masses of soldiers. Instead the fighters are scattered and small in number, dwarfed by the impressive mountains and hillside backdrops of Cork. If not for these integral landscapes, much of the film could play out on a small theater stage. With the exception of an exterior-to-interior shot that momentarily gets blown out, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd masterfully conveys natural-light settings of the era with shadowy daytime scenes and candle-lighted nighttime shots. A foggy train station early in the film is especially evocative.

It’s the visual beauty of the film that makes the violence so much more chilling and contemptible. There’s a distancing that takes effect when war films like Saving Private Ryan and Letters From Iwo Jima wash the color from the frame, rendering them abstract and less real. Terrence Malick and John Toll seemed to get it right with The Thin Red Line, incriminating both man and nature amid emerald blades of grass and crystal blue ocean water. The savagery of war is palpable in The Wind That Shakes the Barley not because Loach shocks us with bloodshed—he cuts away when we’re on the verge of squirming—but because the sorrowful consequences of the torment are harder to accept.

Author rating: 8/10

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