The Wind That Shakes The Barley Review
Ken Loach’s latest film returns from its triumph in Cannes, where it took the Palme D’Or, to a decidedly lukewarm reception at home. The film was condemned by such worthy and well-known film critics, intellectuals and historians as Jeremy Clarkson and The Telegraph’s Simon Heffer as a pro-IRA film, who also used the opportunity to take a swipe at the director himself. Seems odd to me. But a little controversy goes a long way at the Box Office, and hopefully Mr Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty may at last get the hit they so richly deserve.
Set in Ireland, more specifically Cork, just after the First World War, The Wind That Shakes The Barley opens on a tranquil rural scene – a game of hurling, played on a field of such blinding greensward that you understand why the Emerald Isle got its name. One of the players, Damien (Murphy) is leaving for London, and after the game he and some of the others go to make his farewells to Peggy (Mary O’Riordan), a smallholder and friend of the family. The Black & Tans, having got wind of the forbidden match (hurling is banned as a ‘paddy’ sport), storm into the farmyard and when Micheail, Peggy’s grandson, refuses to answer in English, beat him to death.
Though some of his friends want him to stay and join the fight against the British, Damien, a pragmatist, can’t see how they can win with hurley sticks and leaves to catch his train, to the distress of Teddy (Delaney) and Peggy’s grand-daughter Sinead (Fitzgerald). But when he sees the driver, Dan (Cunningham) being beaten by British soldiers, Damien changes his mind and takes the oath of the Irish Republican Army.
After a string of Flying Column successes, a truce is declared. Sinn Fein signs a Treaty with the British Government. But the treaty is seen by many as a betrayal – Northern Ireland is to remain part of the UK, the Irish must swear an oath to the Crown, and have no real economic independence. Dan, and the other socialists, remind the group that they need to get rid of the landowners – only through common ownership of the land can they eradicate poverty; Teddy and the other pro-treatyites want to avoid an immediate and terrible war, in which they believe they would be crushed. As the group splinters, its clear that freedom comes at a bitter price.
The biggest reproach levelled at Ken Loach, post-Cannes, is that his film sympathises with the IRA. But The Wind That Shakes The Barley clearly shows the effects of war and class struggle on all the protagonists, both British and Irish. The Black & Tans, themselves often young men not long out of the trenches, have been brutalised and, like all good soldiers, indoctrinated to the point where they no longer see the Irish as humans. The Black & Tans were, in fact, sent in by the British Government to crush the rebellion and were not part of the regular troops; their brutality led to a tit-for-tat cycle of violence, with the guerilla war becoming increasingly dirty on both sides.The film isn’t soft on the IRA, these aren’t romantic heroes – and they make some hard and nasty decisions, such as the time when Damien has to execute a traitor who is also a friend he’s known all his life.
As always Loach draws outstanding performances from his cast, as usual a mix of professionals and non-actors, many of whom were Cork locals, and the whole film feels real, right down to the extras and costumes and the locations – even the soft, cloudy sky and the sheer brilliance of the landscape, the homespun clothes and ragged children. Though politics underlines the story, it’s also exciting: these young people are living with fear, making huge decisions everyday, their emotions intensified by the constant possibility of death. Loach also emphasises the role of women and how essential their strength and support was for the success of the guerilla war.
Ken Loach is one of the few British filmmakers with a genuinely individual voice and perspective, and whether you like his policies or not he should be respected for that alone. And anyway, isn’t it our democratic duty to question our goverment and their version of history?
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