The Wind That Shakes the Barley

| December 10, 2006

Opening on a bucolic scene of politely dressed boys playing a lightly raucous game of hurling, verdant hills and fields cosily surrounding them, as if the very Earth itself was cradling its chosen children in its ample, fulsome bosom, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re about to settle into a patch of postcard blarney celebrating the simple pleasures of Irish country life. A slight scuffle between players erupts, a hot temper disturbing the placid surface with a sudden flutter of discord (quickly snuffed by a mentor figure who scolds the boys to play fair)-a silly schoolboy flare-up, defused in proper casual fashion.
Any mistake you may have regarding the film’s intentions is stunningly corrected just a scene later, where what should be another minor gesture of defiance is met with horrific consequences (cleverly repositioning the opening moment of disturbance as a rhythmic presage of behaviour to follow, the responses to which turn much more malignant and appalling). In one terrifying instant, director Loach brings (to brutally immediate life) the evils of the Blacks and Tans, the marauding soldiers of the British occupying forces in Ireland in the early 1900’s. The very same group of men innocently engaged in their sporting event are forcibly rounded up by the Army men (the game itself is cited as an illegal gathering) and told to state their names-when one of the men refuses to reveal his name in English, stubbornly reciting in Gaelic his identity, he is carted off and shot dead. Irreparable damage to a nation’s soul is accomplished in a negligent second’s time, without so much as a shiver of conscience. It’s made quite blazingly clear how an individual political consciousness may form in regards to direct experience-and indeed, this sad, alarming moment is the wake-up call to action for lead character Damian (Cillian Murphy).
Previously off to London to pursue his medical career, neutral and unengaged politically, the remorseless murder of his friend Micheail awakens Damian to the crimes of the British regime. He joins with his activist brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) in the initial insurrections of the Sinn Fein party, initiating a series of terror raids against the British. Gentle Damian, once promised a life of comfort and wealth, dedicates himself to the cause, the legacy of which is violence and constant unstable flight-he has subsumed himself in the Irish war of Independence.
Immaculately crafted as ever, with a classically structured screenplay (scenes beautifully rhyming one another, with slight but pointed reversals ), this 2006 Palme D’Or winner primarily functions as a clearly presented historical account of early 20th century Irish socio-political unrest, as lived by fictional Everyman Damian (although producer Paul Laverty claims he is partially based on the figure Tom Barry). From a united national front to a puppet armistice set up by the British government (which effectively split former allies into bitter-and deadly-rival groups, fomenting the hatred that led to the Irish Civil War in the opening years of the 1920’s), Loach illustrates the mechanics and systems of the organized rebellion, keeping a steady and watchful eye also on the personal costs incurred in devotion to revolution-two loyal brothers sorrowfully acknowledge the growing divide as obstinately abiding principles unequivocally separate them, Damian relinquishes a romantic relationship as it is incompatible with his commitment.
One of Loach’s great strengths has always been to locate the beating heart in material that could easily slide into broad and impersonal studies of (mostly) social institutions. Never does he forget to emotionally emphasize the impact the flaws and shortcomings of each system has upon the individual-rarely do his characters come off as mere mouthpieces to advance the social agenda. I’m happy to report that the greater canvas of history does not defeat his emotional fluidity-he gets detailed and nuanced performances out of all of the actors. Yet even a master such as Loach isn’t always able to avoid the clichés of the war film (thus we have sudden frenzied battles, routine humiliations meant to outrage, anguished killings of collaborative friends and family, proud women crumpling at news of a loved one’s death, formless men sharply trained in military strategy); at least he has the authority to enliven such formulaic scenes with a grave, noble passion. The color palette of choice is a grey hue, as if disappointment and grief has resigned the landscape to a permanent state of dusk.
Not being a particular fan of either war or propaganda films (Loach’s ruthlessly cold depiction of callous Britain is a very contentious point, but he does have the weight of history on his side-in any case, his perspective may be seen as reactionary), I remained engaged by the film’s gritty, novelistic approach, and its avoidance of easy cant. I also appreciated the primer on the origins of divisive grievances and molten animosities that continue to influence and haunt Irish society through the present day.

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