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The Wind That Shakes the Barley

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Brothers in arms: Cillian Murphy and Pdraic Delaney
  • Brothers in arms: Cillian Murphy and Pdraic Delaney

For a hard-edged film -- its observations about social class as steely as its ruminations on guerrilla warfare and the wages of empire -- Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley is wonderfully soft to look at. Set in County Cork, in 1920, it captures that eternally diffuse quality of Irish light, luminescence bouncing off pillowy clouds, silver scattered in raindrops.

But the beauty of green leaves, dark earth and yellow gorse quickly turns ironic (or at least contrapuntal) in this story of volunteer militias bent on expelling occupiers. And the quiet of a candle-lit wake is merely a pause between the first act of brutality the film depicts and the others to follow, righteous acts of violence all.

Loach is a pre-eminent political filmmaker, and the struggle over Irish independence is for him fertile ground, if unusual for its historical setting. From Poor Cow to Ladybird, Ladybird to My Name is Joe, the British director has been as resolutely contemporary as he has been working-class in his outlook.

Yet with a script by frequent collaborator Paul Laverty, Loach finds in this oft-dramatized conflict both stories deeply human and nuances previously little explored. His hero is Damien (Cillian Murphy), a bright and sensitive young man due to pursue medical studies in London. But Damien embraces the Republican cause after witnessing how hard the notorious Black and Tans crack down on opponents of British hegemony, suspected or real. Overnight, like his brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney), he's raiding British barracks and ambushing British convoys.

In Loach's more explicit political-advocacy films -- Central America-set Carla's Song, immigrant-unionization drama Bread and Roses -- he wears his sympathies on his sleeve. And Wind That Shakes the Barley has key instants of stirring people's-history narrative: Irish rail workers collectively refusing to transport British soldiers, and suffering for it; a scene in the underground court where Republicans civilly render their own community-level civil justice.

Yet Loach writes his heroes in small letters, and typically places them in complex social contexts, where nothing's black or white. Much of the film is documentary in style, with discreet medium shots and dispassionate camera angles that ask us to think hard about what we're watching. In that makeshift courtroom, for instance, Republican adjudicators face the same temptation to trade justice for pecuniary interests as do their hated occupiers.

Moreover, while Loach puts himself in Republican shoes, he refuses to valorize anyone's violence. Black and Tans might burn old women out of their thatch-roofed farmhouses, but the protagonists' killing of four soldiers sitting around a tavern table is shown for merciless slaughter. And their execution of the Anglo-Irish landholder who has turned in a rebel is as wrenching as any act in the film -- maybe more so, for viewers inclined to identify with the guerillas' liberation ideology.

As well-acted as it is beautifully filmed, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is history from a village-eye view, its plot also incorporating the terrible schism over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, a rift which here turns tragic. Still, lines of dialogue like "We've got to stamp them out," and references to "the most powerful country on earth" make it fair to draw links to contemporary wars of occupation around the globe.

Certainly, as Loach depicts the level of violence that must be maintained to sustain either an occupation or a resistance movement -- in cycles wherein the sacrifices of the dead are cited to justify further sacrifices of the living -- it's no surprise that during his trip to the past he finds echoes of the present. He'd be irresponsible not to. But this too works because the echoes ring true -- a harmony as sad, and as chilling, as it is timeless.

Starts Fri., April 20. Regent Square

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