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The rap on Ken Loach is that, because he’s a committed leftist, his films are stiff and ideological. The gripe is almost entirely unjustified. It’s true that historical context overwhelms the central story in some of the British director’s dramas, notably those set on this side of the Atlantic, like Carla’s Song and Bread and Roses. But Loach has always tried to create complex, believably human characters, and his films rarely end with righteous victory. He’s fascinated by well-intentioned failure and drawn to tales of devastating intramural squabbles. Rather than culminating with triumph over the reactionaries, Loach films such as 1995’s Land and Freedom and the powerful new The Wind That Shakes the Barley build to moments in which colleagues turn on one another, resulting in disillusionment and worse.
Opening on an Irish hockey field in 1920, The Wind That Shakes the Barley begins as a tale of radicalization. Damien (Cillian Murphy) is a young doctor who’s about to take a post at a British hospital when the members of the pro-British militia known as the Black and Tans halt the hockey game as an illegal “public meeting.” One of the busted players insists on speaking in Gaelic, and the soldiers beat him to death. Damien still won’t cancel his trip, but at the train station he witnesses another act of brutality, as trainmen who refuse to carry British troops are assaulted. Damien decides to stay and becomes a member of the Irish Republican Army. That makes him an ally, but ultimately an enemy, of his older brother, Teddy (Pádraic Delaney).
Damien, Teddy, and their cohorts participate in several attacks on British forces, but their most wrenching assignments require them to intimidate and discipline “collaborators”—ordinary Irish citizens who see little choice but to cooperate with the country that has ruled theirs for centuries. After the brothers and several others are captured, and Teddy is tortured, Damien’s stalwart girlfriend, Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald), tells them who informed: an Anglo-Irish landowner and his young Irish farmhand. It falls to Damien to kill them both, a blood initiation that leads to an inevitable question: Are the IRA insurgents fundamentally different from the Black and Tans?
Characteristic of Loach’s films, the action in The Wind That Shakes the Barley is periodically interrupted by political discussions. A local usurer is fined by a “Republican court,” but Teddy says he shouldn’t be penalized because his money buys weapons for the IRA. The dialogue only gets more heated after Britain agrees to a truce and the establishment of the Irish Free State, an arrangement that comes with conditions that are unacceptable to many of the rebels. While Teddy endorses the treaty, Damien joins the majority faction that continues to fight, a choice that leads to the film’s final confrontation. Both emotionally and politically, this development is anything but simplistic.
Filmed on location in County Cork, whose green and browns are beguilingly captured by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is not flashy. Its style and themes seem as classic as the folk tune that provides the title. Although Loach’s camera is highly mobile, he doesn’t shoot the action scenes with the quick cuts and fast pans that have been the standard visual parlance ever since Platoon. The battle scenes are not shortchanged but neither are they glamorized. Scripter Paul Laverty, a longtime Loach associate, maintains an even balance between action and ideas. Anybody claiming the film is ideological has likely been raised on recent Hollywood fare and is easily shocked by a movie has any ideas at all.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year not because it takes an earnest view of European history—or because its account of insurgents and occupiers has some resonance with contemporary events. It’s as much a character drama as a political one, and it turns on an unexpectedly sympathetic performance by Murphy, who’s known for contorting his features to play freakish antiheroes and outright villains. (His most conspicuous role was the Scarecrow in Batman Begins.) While Teddy serves primarily as a plot device, embodying the revolution and then its betrayal, Damien’s journey from healer to killer transcends its historical setting. His struggles, both exterior and interior, compellingly demonstrate that the political is always personal.