The Wind That Shakes the Barley (IFC First Take, R)

barley2Few pictures have delivered the personal emotional force of The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Ken Loach's unsentimental tale won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and its impact will stay with you for a very long time.

 

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Numerous films have been made about violent revolutionaries battling a large, brutal occupying force, and many have focused on the Irish/Britain conflict. Prominent examples include The Boxer, Michael Collins, and Bloody Sunday, which all delivered powerful experiences. However, few pictures have delivered the personal emotional force of The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Ken Loach's unsentimental tale won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and its impact will stay with you for a very long time.

The story takes place in the early 1920s and focuses on two brothers willing to commit murder to drive the British out and create an independent Irish republic. Damien (Cillian Murphy) has little interest in the struggle and plans to continue his medical studies in London, but a nasty confrontation with the Black and Tans changes his perspective. Their brutal, denigrating treatment of his childhood friend for a minor offense effectively brings about this change and leads Damien down an unfortunate path. Their guerilla gang of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) is led by his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney)-a charismatic leader willing to undergo vicious torture to further the cause. The unconventional activities work for a short time, but several betrayals could bring a quick end to the entire group.

British filmmaker Ken Loach (My Name is Joe, Sweet Sixteen) has enjoyed a diverse career while remaining under the radar. His work usually depicts contemporary stories with considerable realism, and this period piece retains this tone. Barry Ackroyd's cinematography is excellent, but it generally avoids the grand shots prevalent in many epics. He consistently uses medium and long shots to portray the violence, which could bring a detached feeling to the viewing. However, this lack of manipulation from the camera enhances the impact and doesn't tell us how to think. When Damien and Teddy decimate a squad of British soldiers arriving in a convoy, the violence serves their aims, but our response is not so positive. Loach directs this scene in straightforward fashion and avoids using gimmicks that might let the characters off the hook.

This film's topic may be historical, but it contains numerous subtle references to modern issues that make it especially relevant. While the British interrogate the IRA members for murdering their comrades, they believe the acts are necessary. These scenes work fine on their own, but also call to mind the Iraq conflict, particularly involving torture and insurgent attacks. Both sides feel justified to use extraordinary means to succeed, and each step pushes the other side towards greater atrocities. Paul Laverty's excellent script generates considerable sympathy for Teddy and Damien, but he also reveals the unfortunate side to their guerilla tactics. When they're forced to execute a young traitor who'd been a comrade since childhood, the result is shocking and completely understandable.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley includes considerable violence, but we never get an easy look at the bloody moments. A nasty early beating occurs off screen, which enhances the effect and makes it more emotionally draining. Damien does not see the violence firsthand, so our response mirrors his own horror. The brutality here is emotional, as we witness his descent towards becoming a less admirable figure. During one gripping sequence, he watches the soldiers mistreat his girl and can do nothing to stop it. Their bond remains strong, but the subdued reaction presents the growing immorality. When the British ultimately give in and sign a treaty granting independence, the measures don't go far enough, which continues the struggle. The lengthy ideological debate about this treaty is one of the film's strongest scenes and displays the growing rift between the two brothers. Their personal conflict drives the story's final act and leads to a compelling, saddening conclusion. | Dan Heaton

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