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Ireland, 1920. Two brothers become involved in the struggle for independence from Britain, joining in a guerrilla war. When a treaty is finally signed that will grant freedoms but partition the country, the brothers’ differing political ideologies put them on opposing sides for the first time.
Winner of the PALME D'OR at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.
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In a country as young as the Republic of Ireland, the bloody birth of the nation still leaves scars that to this day have never fully healed. When the Irish Free State was founded in 1921 it resulted in the partition of the country, leaving the six counties that compose Northern Ireland under British rule. This resulted in a civil war that put comrades against one another in an attempt to secure the nation’s future.
As such, it is not an easy topic for a feature film. Because there were no true heroes or villains, one is always going to be accused of favouritism or prejudice by one side or another when the subject is brought up. Perhaps that is why it took an Englishman, veteran director Ken Loach, to bring The Wind That Shakes The Barley to the screen. The winner of the 2006 Palme D’Or at Cannes, Loach’s film did not avoid controversy, especially among the British press, but he gives us as objective a view of this tumultuous period as one could hope for.
If you are only familiar with Cillian Murphy through his Hollywood work it may come as a shock to hear him speak in his native Cork accent. But what shouldn’t be surprising is the intensity and emotion he brings to the role of Damien. He begins his journey as an apolitical student, simply wishing to escape Ireland for a university in London. But events conspire to keep him in his home country, and under the guidance of a strong-willed union worker (played by the always reliable Liam Cunningham) we watch his transformation into a battle-hardened Irish Republican, willing to fight and die for what he believes in.
Though Murphy is the star, it is not just Damien’s story, and Pádraic Delaney deserves praise for his turn in the arguably more demanding role of Teddy. As the older brother he feels a responsibility to protect Damien, and he suffers greatly for both friends and country. He has seen and hates the violence spreading throughout his nation, and seeks a peaceful resolution. So it is a great credit to Delaney that he can portray Teddy’s intense sadness when the political route only brings more bloodshed, and his scenes alone with Murphy are among the best in the film.
If there is one complaint about this film, it is that the portrayal of British characters can at times be rather harsh. There’s no denying that the fearsome Black and Tans were responsible for many atrocities, and no doubt many British soldiers and diplomats had little sympathy for the Irish guerrillas. But it can be argued that Loach pushes this issue too far at times, making the British characters a parody of themselves. One could say the director was so careful to appear objective with regards to the Irish civil war that he forgot any objectivity elsewhere.
I do not believe, however, that this should take from your enjoyment of The Wind That Shakes The Barley. We watch two boys become hardened men, forced to confront a heavily armed British force and the constant threat of torture and execution if caught. And then, in a heartbreaking turn of events, they find themselves on opposite sides of the divide when Ireland is wracked by civil war, their devotion to their separate causes forcing an inevitable, violent confrontation. It’s a drama that rings true for many Irish families who were forever torn apart by the civil war, and can be easily understood by anyone who has ever had to put their beliefs before their blood.