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THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY, 2006
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THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY MOVIE POSTER
THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY, 2006
Movie Reviews

Directed by Ken Loach
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Pádraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham, Orla Fitzgerald
Review by Conor Duffy



SYNOPSIS:

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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REVIEW:

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.

A quick glance at his impressive CV will show you that Loach prefers to examine the big issues in contemporary politics by looking through the eyes of the regular folks who deal with them every day. He takes that approach here, analysing the Irish War of Independence through the story of two brothers, Damien (Murphy) and Teddy (Delaney). Damien is an Irish Che Guevara, a promising medical student who trades his books for a rifle, a committed Socialist for whom only complete independence will do. Teddy is more of a pragmatist; when the 1921 Treaty is announced he sees it as a way of gaining more freedoms later on without resorting to any more bloodshed. The viewer is never told who is right or wrong; that decision is left up to us, Loach thinking highly enough of his audience that he expects we will come to our own conclusions.

The script, by frequent Loach collaborator Paul Laverty, is a slice of life from this tumultuous period. Great events happen in small rooms, the provisional Irish government holding court in backrooms and shops. There are no grand sweeping shots of Ireland or beautifully choreographed battle sequences. Colours are muted; the camera is put down in the dirt with the volunteer soldiers who train with wooden rifles. The violence is quick and dirty, whether it be the beating of a young boy or the ambush of a British supply truck. Things go wrong and people get killed, and we’re not allowed to forget that these are just regular men being forced to do extraordinary things.

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.

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