LOACH SHAKES THINGS UP
THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY
(3 and 1/2 out of 4 stars)
Directed by Ken Loach
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney,
Liam Cunnighham, Orla Fitzgerald
124 minutes, Rated Not Rated
At 70 years of age, Ken Loach shows no signs of slowing down. Although his last film released in the US, 2004’s A Fond Kiss, tackled many of his movies’ usual themes of working class strife, the picture felt as though a relatively minor work for the veteran British director. So, it’s interesting to see Loach return with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a muckraking historical tale that is one of the most ambitious efforts of his career. In Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, Red Eye), Loach is also working with his biggest name actor since directing a pre-Oscar winning Adrien Brody in Bread and Roses.
Set in 1920’s Ireland, Murphy plays Damien, a medical student who, appalled by the abuse his friends and family suffer at the hands of British authorities and abandons his studies to join his brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney), in the fight for Irish independence. The men operate as an Irish Republican Army guerilla force called the Flying Column, and respond to the strong-arm tactics of the British “Black and Tan” squads with their own brand of violence. The war wages back and forth, as Damien and Teddy survive combat, torture, and imprisonment until the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty gives Ireland partial independence.
Although it appears to be a victory for the Irish revolutionaries, the Treaty causes internal division. Teddy supports the Treaty, viewing it as the first step to his country’s complete autonomy, and joins the Irish army, which operates under the auspices of the British. Refusing to abide by the Treaty, Damien is disgusted by his brother’s willingness to serve the powers they so recently, and vehemently, opposed. Soon, the conflicting sides are embroiled in a civil war, literally pitting brother against brother.
The winner of the Palm d’ Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, The Wind That Shakes the Barley has come under scrutiny by critics in Loach’s native England for its depiction of British brutality. If the effectiveness of a political film can be measured by the passionate reaction elicited from both supporters and detractors, Loach has made quite a statement here.
The director’s matter-of-fact style presents dramatic moments without the customary embellishment. The documentary-like camera work and jerky editing, which often cuts away from scenes before it feels as though they’ve reached an obvious denouement, create a naturalistic atmosphere. And some might find this atmosphere, which is void of any visual flourishes, problematic because of how it tends to deemphasize emotion.
While there’s little bloodshed, the violence is still riveting. One excruciating scene finds Teddy being tortured in a gruesome way that’s sure to cause audiences to squirm. The Flying Column’s method of dealing with two Irish men who they suspect of betraying them is comparatively less taxing on the viewer, but remains cold and brutal. Of course, there’s no question on which side the filmmakers’ (the script was written by frequent Loach collaborator Paul Laverty) sympathies lie, but Loach is able to submerge his agenda-driven tactics just enough to prevent the film from feeling overwhelmingly manipulative. It’s not exactly a “fair and balanced” portrait, but neither is it ideologically pompous.
The thick accents render some of the dialogue, which frequently overlaps, difficult to understand. It’s not absolutely critical to pick up every word, but subtitles would have been welcome. Because of the way Loach covers the scenes, the acting, even in histrionic moments, feels slightly underplayed, though Murphy is the clear stand out as the headstrong Damien whose sacrifices are ultimately met with little reward.
Ken Loach has made a long career of championing the underdog, and his stripped-down though rigorous aesthetic has always been the perfect way to frame his tales of injustice. His powerful films, by design, won’t ever find universal acceptance, but will, more importantly, stir thought and debate. Fortunately, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is no exception.