Review: The Wind That Shakes the Barley

WSBMASTER116.jpgWhither a Weekend Films Post?
I set out to write about what films to see this weekend and clearly I failed. It’s after midnight on Sunday morning and here I am with almost 600 words about Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley and fuck all about any of the other films I was going to recommend. I’ll get better at this “doing things at the right time” thing, I promise. So, then, take as you will, this longer than expected review of Ken Loach’s excellent offering (albeit a week or 2 late):

Ken Loach‘s beautiful and stirring epic of the years leading up to and including the Irish Civil War is the best film of the year to date and this 2006 Cannes Palm D’or winner is certain to be on many critics’ top ten lists, come December. Often criticized (not by me) for being heavy-handed with his politics, Loach is less so, here. While there’s no doubt as to who the bad guys are in the first part of the film, the lines are blurred once the story moves from British occupation to civil war. Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty have personalized this historical drama with the story of Damien and Teddy O’Donovan, two brothers deep in the Irish resistance. Damien (Cillian Murphy) begins the film all set to leave for London to work as a doctor, while older brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) is already a veteran member of the struggle against the British occupation. Two particularly vivid acts of brutality by the Black & Tans, paramilitary squads drafted by the English to help quell the rising rebellion in Ireland, inspire Damien to stay in Ireland and join the resistance.

Taking full use of the stunning geography of the island, Loach and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd have created a lush and earthy tone for the film, at times bright and green and at others, misty and grey. Laverty has created full, living and compelling characters that struggle with the moral and physical hardships brought on by such terrible times. Murphy is exceptional as the doctor cum freedom fighter and the scenes leading up to, during and following his execution of a traitor to the cause are among the most powerful in a film loaded with moving and emotion-packed moments, to wit:

An important facet of the resistance shown here are the women and in the press notes, Laverty writes that the first character that took shape in his head was that of Peggy, the farm-owning grandmother played by Mary O’Riordan. Peggy, her daughter Bernadette (Mary Murphy) and granddaughter Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) embodied one of the more important elements of the resistance, as women often provided safe harbor for fighters on the run, hid stocks of weapons (a crime punishable by death) and were key intelligence operatives, passing unnoticed amid groups of men. Fitzgerald is one of the high points in a film notable for exceptional acting and ought to be seen in many films to come.
Surprise, surprise, here’s a period political film that resonates with modern sensibilities. I don’t for a minute think that Loach et al. intended this film as a pure allegory on, say, Iraq, but as the saying goes, history repeats itself. Time and time again. My only real problem with the film is the lack of an end crawl. The film could do with some text to lay out, say, the next 30 years of Irish history in broad strokes for those who are not familiar. Many non-Europeans will have already been surprised (sad, but true) by the fact that Ireland wasn’t an independent country in the 1920’s and letting them know the outcome of the Civil War and happenings of the following years might help them in processing the film as a whole.
As a related aside, here’s a tip: don’t EVER order a Black & Tan in an Irish bar. In fact, I’d avoid ordering one anywhere.
Here’s the full trailer:

Photos by Joss Barratt and © 2006 The Independent Film Channel LLC

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