Dir: Ken Loach. Ire-UK-Ger-It-Sp. 2006.124mins.
Given the turbulent events that it portrays, The Wind That Shakes TheBarley is a curiously detached affair. For all the intelligence and craftsmanshipthe director brings to his material, the film conspicuously fails to tug at theemotions in the way that might have been expected. Ken Loach is certainly successfulin illuminating an episode in Irish history which remains relatively little discussed,especially in the UK, but his approach sometimes seems stronger on analysis thanpassion.
The setting is the Ireland ofthe early 1920s, a tumultuous period when the British Government did everythingwithin its power to prevent an Irish Republic being formed. The Black and Tans (demobbedBritish soldiers sent to help the Royal Ulster Constabulary maintain order) brutallysuppressed the Republican movement. The Republicans, in turn, waged a ferociousguerrilla war against what they regarded as an army of occupation. In the summerof 1921, a truce was declared followed by the Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed in December1921. But the treaty proved hugely divisive, splitting the Republican movement andsparking a civil war.
This, then, is the historicalbackcloth against which Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty attempt to tell theirstory. They make it very clear just how perfidiously the British politicians behavedduring the period. For this alone, the film is bound to provoke debate when Pathe releases it in Britain later in late June, but the controversywill be far less heated than when Loach touched on the notorious British "shoot-to-kill"policy in Northern Ireland in Hidden Agenda(1990). The events here are more than 80 years in the past.
Furthermore, with the death ofthe Evening Standard's outspoken and influential Alexander Walker in 2003, Loachlost the one film critic who could almost have been guaranteed to stir up commotionagainst his film in the press.
Given Loach'sinternational reputation, The Wind That ShakesThe Barley is bound to receive a respectful enough reception internationallyas well as plenty of festival play (it competes in Cannes this week), but box-officereturns are likely to remain relatively modest. There is far more speechifying than in most Loach movies (perhaps inevitable giventhe complexity of the political issues addressed.)
Although on a grander scale thanany Loach movie since Land And Freedom, the film conspicuously lacks the scale of NeilJordan's much higher budgeted Michael Collins.By honing in on the experiences of a small community, the film-makers are tryingto show the bigger conflict in microcosm, but there are times when the canvas seemsjust too narrow for the seismic events that are being shown. Nor do the dialogueand performances have quite the warmth and spontaneity that have characterised suchrecent (and contemporary-set) collaborations between Loach and Laverty as Tickets, My Name Is Joe, Sweet Sixteenor Ae Fond Kiss.
Underlining the fact that theissues raised here remain topical, The WindThat Shakes The Barley received its first press screeningin the UK during the week that Denis Donaldson, a Sinn Fein member turned Britishinformer, was murdered in a remote cottage in County Donegal. One of the most chillingmoments in Loach's film is the scene in which the younginformer Chris is executed by a childhood friend for betraying his colleagues tothe British. It is made very clear that family ties or friendship count for nothingif someone has broken the code of silence.
The first half of the film isthe most effective. In broad brushstrokes, Loach shows how Damien (Cillian Murphy), a cerebral, would-be doctor, is so appalledat the roughouse tactics of the Black and Tans that heabandons plans to study in England and joins the Irish Republican Army instead.The build-up to the guerrilla war is tense and dramatic. We see the Black and Tanslynching one young man who refuses to answer their questions in English. The Republicansbegin to behave in equally brutal fashion. "If they bring their savagery over here,we will meet it with a savagery of our own," they proclaim as they form a 'FlyingColumn' to fight back against the Brits.
Loach's collaborators are on top form. The period reconstructionis meticulous. At times, Barry Ackroyd's cinematography,with its heavy use of natural light, recalls Nestor Almendros'equally distinctive work on Terrence Malick's Days Of Heaven.There is also a melancholy and evocative score from George Fenton.
It's just a pity that the storytellingbegins to stutter once the truce is signed. As if to clarify exactly what is atstake, Loach throws in a lengthy debate in which the pros and cons are mulled overby the former guerrilla fighters. This may be useful as a primer, but as drama itfalls very flat. As the civil war breaks out, there are self-conscious echoes ofthe first half of the film, but the key difference now is that the Irish are fightingagainst one another, not the Brits.
The attempts at sketching inthe romance between Damien and Sinead are tokenistic. Even the relationship betweenDamien and his brother Teddy (the IRA man who ends up in an Irish army uniform trackingdown his old colleagues) is curiously unengaging.
In many Loach films, the protagonistsare played by unknowns whose backgrounds mirror those of their characters. In afilm set in 1920/1921, a slightly different casting process was clearly going tobe needed. There are several striking cameos here, notably that of John Crean as the hapless young farmhand Chris and Roger Allam as the blustering and defiant Anglo-Irish landowner SirJohn Hamilton, and the ensemble playing is generally assured.
Nonetheless, it takes a certainleap of the imagination to accept Cillian Murphy (so distinctive as the transvestite in Breakfast On Pluto or as the sleek villain in Batman Begins) as a selfless Republican hero here. His performance,taking its cue from the film itself, is subtle and multi-layered without being especiallyengaging on an emotional level. In the final reel in particular, as Damien endsup pitted against his own brother, this lack of passion becomes problematic.
Still, at a time when Britishcinema is shorn of strong, directorial voices prepared to raise social and politicalissues, at least Loach remains as committed as ever. The Wind That Shakes The Barley is a long wayshort of his best work, but he is still ready to probe away in areas which remainfiercely contentious. His own attitude is clear - he deplores the divisive effectof the 1921 treaty - but that doesn't stop him from exploring the arguments madeby the Republicans who supported the treaty or from showing the suffering enduredby both sides in a conflict that (quite literally) pitted brother against brother.
UK Film Council
The Irish Film Board
Pathe Pictures International