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The Wind That Shakes the Barley   B+

IFC First Take / Sixteen Films

Year Released: 2006 (USA: 2007)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Pádraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham, Orla Fitzgerald, Mary O'Riordan, Mary Murphy, Fiona Lawton, Roger Allam.

Review by Rob Vaux

Ken Loach lures you into The Wind That Shakes the Barley, much as his Irish protagonists are lured into the conflict to free their country from British rule in the early years of the 20th century. He begins with push-button tactics: a mélange of "Irish good/British bad" demagoguery establishing a moral order as simplistic as any Michael Bay film (and opening on St. Patrick's Day, in case anyone misses the point). Occupying soldiers torment and brutalize the seething natives, who turn to the nascent IRA as their only recourse. Yes, they must embrace a certain ugliness to do so, but always in the name of a noble cause, and as bad as the home team gets, they never approach the horrid excesses of His Majesty's royal thugs. The villains are clearly defined, the heroes set in their mission. A deep, wide line separates right and wrong, and only a fool would claim he couldn't see it.

And then, when we're good and hooked, and think we know what the stakes entail, messy, troublesome reality starts seeping in. Battle lines shift away from foreign oppressors and towards the local variety. Compromise and realpolitik muddy the ideological waters. Notions of moral righteousness suddenly become very cloudy, and the way forward vanishes into a complex quagmire of well-meaning intentions and tragic consequences. Loach certainly knows where his sympathy lies, but it's the way he slowly and imperceptibly turns that sympathy on its ear that gives his efforts here the power that won the Palme d'Or.

Admittedly, the fulcrum is a little heavy-handed, positing the IRA's turbulent early years through a pair of brothers whose torments echo the nation to which they belong. The elder Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) is initially the more eager of the two: ready and willing to strike back at the occupying British under the banner of guerilla war. The younger Damien (Cillian Murphy) is a doctor on his way to London, uninterested in politics and happy just to find a nice hospital where he can help sick people. That changes when a gang of British Black and Tans descends on their local social circle, ostensibly to punish them for gathering in a public place (they were playing field hockey). When one of the other boys insists on giving his name in Gaelic, the Brits slaughter him like a hog; several similar incidents follow in rapid fashion, convincing Damien that he cannot abandon his country in such an hour of need.

It's a hard path to be sure, demanding total commitment and necessitating brutal acts of its own. Soon enough, Damien's Hippocratic oath is tested by the hit-and-run attacks he engages in as a member of the IRA... and destroyed entirely the day he's forced to execute a man in cold blood. For his part, Teddy (one of the guerillas' local leaders) has to grapple with troubling political compromises, such as letting a local businessman flout the law of the land in exchange for funding Irish arms. One brother has sacrificed everything he is for freedom; the other comes to realize that freedom is never an all-or-nothing proposition. When the British agree to a tentative peace, their various experiences -- felt side-by-side but pushing them in wildly different directions -- spark a conflict that turns them against each other.

Loach's sense of time and place is exquisite, adroitly masking the early stereotypes on which his drama depends. His naturalistic approach extends into the performances as well: actors flub their lines at times, but in his hands, it appears like spontaneous emotion fighting for expression rather than any kind of technical failing. That grit mitigates the dramatic shorthand required to bring such a story to light, while keenly illustrating the immense task Ireland had in securing its independence. The film is quite canny in demonstrating the Republicans' efforts to establish an alternate social structure right under British noses -- notably with the Dáil courts, which tried legal cases in secret -- while reminding us how easily such organs could slip into familiar patterns of corruption and deceit. Irish political legitimacy remained problematic long after the British marched out, a dilemma that The Wind That Shakes the Barley reveals only as the characters themselves come to understand it.

In the process, it transforms the simplistic polemic of the early scenes into something much deeper and more complex. People suffer and sacrifice to attain their desires, and their losses demand real achievements in compensation. Should they cling to their goals unto death, or accept a flawed peace and make the best of it? Both options have pitfalls, and navigating either one carries its own share of misery. Loach's heart bleeds for his protagonists, but he doesn't limit the scope of their struggles to the time and place depicted. Though firmly rooted in the particulars of his drama, he can see the greater truths waiting beneath, and illuminates them without once departing from the immediacy onscreen.

That's important, because simple nature of that immediacy can be trying at times. The Wind That Shakes the Barley is unconscionably reductive in describing the British-Irish conflict (a fact that has tweaked the nose of many a John Bull since its UK release), and though that's probably necessary in light of its larger goals, it doesn't make the cartoonish villainy on display any easier to swallow. No side in any conflict is universally evil; neither is any side universally good. To suggest otherwise ignores reality and silences debate, a proposition Loach flirts dangerously with at times. He escapes it by keeping us firmly with the perception of his heroes -- a perception he recognizes as flawed even if they don't -- and by shaping his message through them, instead of merely lecturing to us. They walk into a tender trap with their eyes open, setting a course they know is right without fully grasping the implications. It all starts out so simple, but sooner or later -- as The Wind That Shakes the Barley shows with methodical, sorrowful wisdom -- everyone learns just where it leads.

Review published 03.16.2007.

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