|Cast:||Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney. Liam Cunningham, Orla Fitzgerald, Mary O'Riordan|
Ken Loach’s universal tale of oppressed vs. oppressors where sustained foreign occupation inevitably tears the subjugated country apart at the seams takes place in 1920 Ireland with the British Black and Tans battling the Irish Republican Army. The reality of life in a small village such as the one Loach depicts is many citizens are neutral or indifferent. County Cork isn’t a hotbed of political activism, but occupation makes it easy to identify the enemy if they are acting as such. The arrogant British take an in your face approach, cocky enough to believe they can get away with anything because they have technology and resources on their side.
The Republican Party’s declaration of Ireland as an independent Republic sounds nice, but as the British didn’t build their empire on the will of the people they took over, an insurgence to actually try to bring independence will, as usual, require the occupying force to piss the locals off. The impetus to resist the interlopers tends to come from a particularly unacceptable, if not unbearable personal experience, causing the conflict to hit home. The British soldiers, who are the same guys who just finished fighting World War 1 and know at least some of the men they menace at the outset comprise the opposing force, are portrayed as brutes, which aggravates certain audience members but seems perfectly logical given the film is from the perspective of those who resent them most.
The British are no more relevant than history forces them to be, the real story is war turning brother against brother, making everyone a brute. The Wind That Shakes the Barley focuses on two Irish brothers. Older brother Teddy Donovan (Padraic Delaney) is more politically active and has established himself as a local leader in the Republican Army, while younger brother Damien (Cillian Murphy) would avoid politics altogether and leave to begin work as a doctor if the British weren’t running amok. Once Damien crosses the line, he can’t go back to his innocent days of uninvolvement. There is only winning or dying, which is why he’s ultimately capable of killing anyone even though his longstanding goal was to save lives.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a three part tale depicting the growth of the local faction of the Irish Republic Army, their conflict against Britain, and the post-treaty split that results in the Irish Civil War. The latter seems the most important, yet isn’t given a significant amount of screen time. Once the locals join the guerrilla war it’s a perpetual exchange of misery and savagery between the two sides. The chilling point the film makes is the Irish become as bad as the British, the pro-treaty faction essentially replaces the Black and Tans, forcing the anti-treaty faction to use the same murderous insurrection tactics on friends and relatives if they are to continue the struggle. The film is a series of ethical dilemmas where moral ambiguity increases with the freedom fighters terrorizing, killing their own traitors, murdering for revenge, accepting money from objectionable donors who they then have to appease, robbing and killing fellow Irish.
Barry Ackroyd, Loach’s regular cinematographer since 1990’s Riff-Raff, really shines in this natural setting based work. Loach has always preferred an unobtrusive camera that stays back and observes his friendly lit characters, but in this green, hilly region the distanced narrow-lensed widescreen photography truly allows the landscapes to interact with the characters. They protect the ragtag unit that knows them well, though the bloodbath seems more tragic in this tranquil pastoral setting.
The action sequences look good, but unlike most war films no one seems to be enjoying themselves. No pleasure or exhilaration is derived from the violence of either side. No one gets any rush; there’s only disbelief as cut down bodies are stared at that slowly switches to desensitization through it becoming part of the routine of life. Loach refuses to make terrorism heroic just because its done by his characters, the people he believes are on the right, or at least less wrong side. Passions careen out of control, and killing seems progressively pointless. Whatever joy the peasants once had becomes but a memory. They may be motivated to win, but they also long to escape. The choices these characters make may not ultimately surprise us, but rarely seem to be reached in an easy or obvious manner. Life is doing what must be done, even if it were inconceivable a month ago and probably won’t be particularly beneficial today. The film’s best scene takes place at the silent movie where the locals learn the details of the treaty Michael Collins has helped negotiate with the British, so excited and more importantly relieved that it’s over only to find out they haven’t really won; they’re still a part of the imperial empire.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a history of the life and times. Rather than focusing on a “lone” hero or even worse on a megalomaniac as so much dull history does, making them even more of a larger than life character than they envisioned themselves as, Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty show what Ireland’s war for independence was like through the eyes of the common people. Though all the characters are fictitious, they seem more real than Michael Collins because all the romanticism and heroism is removed. Ken Loach’s film is good as drama and as faux history, neither of which can be said of that Neil Jordan movie where Julia Roberts was out to prove she was a serious actress by verifying her “Irish” accent that couldn’t fool the deaf in Mary Reilly was no fluke. Loach does cast some known actors, including Murphy, who had just appeared in Jordan’s latest sorry award monger Breakfast on Pluto, but no one acts as if they were bigger or more important than anyone else. Rather than mugging to be identified, they seem to be ordinary people struggling for identity in troubling times.
Loach is more interested in portraying a group than individuals, which is not to day they are the masses of Sergei Eisenstein, but rather their characteristics come out when they are disagreeing on the course of action. Laverty and Loach understand the idea of union, but are also smart enough to realize that just because a bunch of people committed to each other against a common adversary doesn’t mean they’ll be on the same most of the time. A good union, or team for that matter, isn’t about blind agreement, but rather executing what’s been decided to the best of your ability when the time comes.
As with all Ken Loach films, ordinary people are the center and heart. They are modest and hard working, funny when someone can find the opportunity. The characters are generally more richly detailed than in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, where providing sharp contrast takes precedent. What makes Paul Laverty so effective is he’s clever enough to construct the characters so they can provide the historical backdrop. Their stance not only helps define them, but also the times they live in.
Loach’s films show the everyday struggle of life from the perspective of a small group of working stiffs. Life is always a struggle for power in some sense, but that power may be the ability to simply pay your bills on time so you can stand on your own two feet knowing no one owns you. One way or another Loach’s films come down to haves vs. have nots, but some of the political points in The Wind That Shakes the Barley really need expansion, most notably the point of the peasants fighting. As the UK horribly exploits their own work force, unless the Irish get total freedom they’ll never be able to set up a system that might improve the day to day life of any of the characters depicted beyond Damien, who obviously could earn a pretty penny in medicine if he chooses to. All the carnage would essentially be for the right to knock a ball around once a week without being held at gunpoint for holding a “public meeting.” It may be more acceptable to be kept poor by Irishmen, but no one fights a war to come out equally oppressed.
As in A Fond Kiss, Loach and Laverty briefly identify the Catholic Church as a formidable enemy of the rights and freedoms of the ordinary person through an arrogant dictator of a priest. While the church may pay lip service to Jesus Christ valuing the poor and oppressed more than the rich and greedy, whether it be in America today, Nazi Germany, or 1920’s Ireland the men who supposedly represent Christ’s values have an uncanny knack for only putting into practice the least benevolent parts of the Old Testament, and certainly always choose to appease the wealthy and powerful to maintain or increase their own influence.
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