The Wind That Shakes The Barley

June, 2007, Drama

George Santanya’s observation that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them finds vivid expression in this riveting examination of violence and retribution set amidst the guerilla war waged by loosely-organized Irish rebels against British rule in the wake of WWI. English director Ken Loach and his screenwriting collaborator Paul Laverty, (who’ve teamed for a handful of intriguing films over the last decade) captured the top prize at Cannes last year for this timeless story that achingly demonstrates the mentality behind events unfolding today in Iraq, The West Bank, and half a dozen African countries. (The title comes from a haunting Irish dirge, mournfully sung by a grieving grandmother at the wake of her only grandson.) This isn’t art imitating life, but angrily judging it.

An all-Irish cast headed by Cilian Murphy, (the villain in both Batman Begins & Red Eye) traces the fortunes of young men allied with The Republicans, that amorphous collection of Irishmen who followed Michael Collins in his efforts to force The King of England and his government to give Ireland full independence. Brutally harassed by the Black and Tans, (Irishmen recruited into the service of the British Army) the rebels, (principally ruddy-faced farmers and blue-collar workers) engage in hit-and-run tactics including armed robbery and assassinations, which they see as acts of legitimate rebellion. Not surprisingly, the British consider them terrorists and coerce one of their number to turn the others in. A dozen conspirators are captured, among them the Damien, (Murphy) and his older brother Teddy, (Padraic Delaney). When Teddy’s torture at the hand of the military grows too repulsive for one of the soldiers holding them, he helps all but three members of the group to escape. The remaining prisoners are executed and Damien is put in charge of identifying the informer and executing him, despite the fact the two had been friends since childhood. 

Especially grim, eye-for-an-eye reprisals continue on both sides until Collins negotiates a cease-fire and then an arrangement with the English government which provides for Irish regional autonomy under British rule. Although overwhelmingly approved by the Irish people, Damien and a portion of his rebel faction angrily reject this compromise and insist that nothing less than immediate and total independence is required. Teddy disagrees and leads the remainder of their group in support of the new Irish government, taking a position with the authorities charged with implementing it that will pit the brothers against each other in another round of violence which leads to inevitable disaster…

Loach’s films typically focus on the struggles of urban, working-class men and women ground down by the forces of the neo-conservative, free market economies in which they live. As a result, his stories rarely provide the director much opportunity to deliver a movie with the sweeping views and action sequences provided here. Lush countrysides provide perfect field training courses for raw recruits, elaborate ambushes play out across the grassy, stone-ridden hills of rural Ireland and Gallic marching songs herald marching rebel foot soldiers as they emerge from early morning fog; were it not for Barley’s fierce condemnation of violence, however justified, the audience could be forgiven for initially believing that Loach has fashioned an action thriller in which the good guys finally deliver comeuppance to the bad ones.

But in Laverty’s screenplay, good intentions are likely to beget evil consequences; as Damien plunges deeper and deeper into armed resistance against the new Irish government, it becomes increasingly clear he can’t bring himself to any compromise because to do so wouldn’t justify the horrible things he’s done “in the name of the cause”. Thus are fanatics born…

Save for Murphy, The Wind That Shakes The Barley contains no familiar names and only a couple of familiar faces, but every character is perfectly cast and the actors deliver Laverty’s lines with flawless attention to the nuances imbedded his masterful script. He and Loach are especially skilled at presenting the raw brutality which often accompanies military occupations, and the frightening abuses so bluntly depicted here prefigure the tactics later employed by the French in Algeria’s struggle for independence after WW II and most recently by some American personnel in the “War on Terror”. The passionate tone of Laverty’s screenplay surely comes out of his own experiences; trained as lawyer in Glasgow, he did both civil and criminal cases before decamping for Nicaragua to document civil rights abuses there during that country’s battle with The Sandinistas. Similar work followed in both El Salvador and Guatemala before Laverty crossed paths with Loach a decade ago and began a screenwriting career that’s produced 4 of the director’s previous films, (Carla’s Song, My Name Is Joe, Bread & Roses and Sweet Sixteen) in the process garnering handfuls of awards for both of them.

The Irish brogues which add so much verisimilitude to the movie’s dialogue often make it a bit hard for American audiences to catch meaning behind the characters’ words and the cast is large enough to cause a bit of confusion in the early going, but any effort put into comprehension here will be richly rewarded; Professor Gary Wills wrote an essay a few years ago in defense of movies as an art form comprised of unique qualities unavailable in any other medium. If he wrote that treatise today, he’d surely cite this passionate and compulsive drama as proof of his argument. 

The verdict? A flat-out stunning winner.

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