There’s more than a touch of lefty didacticism in the films of 70-year-old English director Ken Loach, but that can be bracing in the context of our modern, ahistorical, generally myopic cinema. His harshly beautiful new movie, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, centers on the violent birth of the Irish Republic in the twenties. The English soldiers—the Black and Tans—waylay the (at first) unassuming Irish, bellow in their faces, beat them senseless with rifle butts, and murder them. The old Irish women sing mournful ballads over fallen lads; the Irish men practice military drills amid those green, unruly hills; the red-haired lasses scoot by on bicycles passing purloined maps and memos. There are retaliations and counter-retaliations, ambushes, and scenes of graphic torture. The first two-thirds of the film moves along the narrative lines you’d expect, but Loach and his cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, make everything strange. They use few, if any, close-ups. The Irish are depicted in groups against their ancestral landscape, their Altmanesque cross talk only semi-intelligible (unless you had an Irish grandmother). The violence is never heroic. It’s brusque, ugly, viewed in long shot through long lenses. Loach’s heart, it emerges, is less in exulting these warriors than in laying out the reasons for the civil war that follows the Irish “victory.” As in many of his movies, the action occasionally stops for a colloquium on economic inequalities or the minutiae of governance—and if that sounds deadly in prospect, the effect is to propel the film into the present tense. Loach might be asking, “Haven’t we learned that wars don’t end with MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”?
The Wind That Shakes the Barley doesn’t play like a socialist tract: It’s deep-textured, steeped in Irish melancholy. The Cork County countryside is hardscrabble yet sublime: a mythic stage for a film about the tensions that tear even the most loyal families apart. The title comes from an eighteenth-century ballad about a man on the verge of leaving his beloved to fight the English: “’Twas hard the woeful words to frame to break the ties that bound us/But harder still to bear the shame of foreign chains around us”—at which point the woman takes a sniper’s bullet in the side, making the decision to leave less difficult. That title would suit a melodrama with an emphasis on doomed love, which is not what Loach has crafted. There is a (chaste) love story and plenty of bloodletting. But what engages him and his screenwriter, Paul Laverty, is the growing tension between brother Irish rebels. The central characters are, in fact, siblings: Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy), a reluctant soldier and former med student, and Teddy O’Donovan (Pádraic Delaney), a hero who won’t give up the location of IRA weapons even as the English pull off his fingernails with a pair of rusty pliers.
The brother-versus-brother dialectic is an obvious cliché, but Loach and Laverty don’t take it in an obvious direction. Gentle Damien is reluctant to join the burgeoning IRA, even after he watches a childhood friend beaten to death by soldiers when the young man refuses to give his name in the King’s English. And yet it’s Damien who becomes a committed killer and who refuses to accept the cease-fire with England. He sits in a movie theater watching a newsreel of the momentous treaty-signing by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, and he can’t believe that his army, his church, and his brother would settle for partial independence. He quotes James Connolly to the effect that without a socialist republic, independence will be in vain: “England will still rule you through your landlords, capitalists, and financial institutions.” It’s the more flamboyantly valiant Teddy who quickly accepts his role as an enforcer of the ruling class—and ends up conducting raids on the very same places he once hid out in.
You could argue that Damien and Teddy are social types rather than individuals, that the class aspect comes out of left(y) field, and that Damien’s disruptiveness is the true impediment to the free Irish Republic down the road. Maybe. Certainly his spiritual descendents would one day be responsible for the despicable bombings of civilians. But how often does Loach’s perspective make it into movies—at least movies with any kind of audience in this country? The intense focus on the group makes it hard even to discuss the actors in isolation. They’re all superb; they all (even the well-known Murphy) fit together. In the scene in which Teddy is tortured, the men in the cell down the corridor listen to his screams and, stricken, drown them out with the Irish anthem. It’s not just that they don’t want to hear him suffer. It’s that they need to remind themselves that there’s no good but the common good.