A Mighty Wind

Photo: Joss Barratt/16 Films Barley/Courtesy of IFC First Take

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.

The common good is also central to Pride, a go-for-it movie based on the true story of an African-American swimming coach who led his poor black community-recreation-center team to victory over snooty racist white academies that had no idea black people could swim. This is familiar terrain jazzed up by unfamiliar voices—principally Terrence Howard and his high-pitched, singsong drawl. You don’t quite know what he’s thinking; he might even be demented. But he keeps you watching and guessing. He’s certainly more compelling than Bernie Mac, who doesn’t rise above his poorly written role (grumpy custodian turned loyal sidekick). Pride has one unusual plot turn. When the coach beats up a thug who maliciously soils his pool, he makes an example of himself for his kids and throws himself off the team. He sits outside as they compete in their championship match! Have you ever seen a climax like that—the director cutting back and forth, back and forth, between furious swimming before a cheering crowd and the star mulishly refusing to budge from some steps? Movies in the promiscuous go-for-it genre rarely show such inner discipline.

Colour Me Kubrick is based on the bizarre true (or, as the movie puts it, “true-ish”) story of a fruitcake who passed himself off in England as Stanley Kubrick, largely to cadge drinks and sexual favors from hopeful young men. For about fifteen minutes it’s fun to watch John Malkovich gaily abuse his license to be weird. No one savors his own weirdness like Malkovich. Under each layer of weirdness, there’s another layer of weirdness. Not even Charlie Kaufman could really get into his head. That might be the problem here. You can’t empathize with this man the way you could, to varying degrees, with the lying protagonists of Catch Me If You Can and Shattered Glass—not even to the point of vicariously enjoying his bogus celebrity. As his act is gradually exposed, he doesn’t change or grow—he just employs even more outlandish fake accents. The movie is endless even at less than 90 minutes. You could use it, A Clockwork Orange style, as aversion therapy for seemingly incorrigible con artists.

There’s a long history of movies dealing with racism in sports, starting with the acclaimed 1950 biopic The Jackie Robinson Story, continuing throughout the civil-rights movement with such movies as The Great White Hope (1970), and culminating in recent let’s-all-get-along movies like 2000’s Remember the Titans and 2006’s Glory Road. And then, of course, there’s the 1993 comedy Cool Runnings, which follows the misadventures of the Jamaican bobsled team’s bid for a medal in the 1988 Olympics and features such politically empowering lines as “I didn’t realize that four black guys in a bobsled could make you blush!”the skinny on …

The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Directed by Ken Loach. IFC First Take. NR.

Directed by Sunu Gonera. Lions Gate Films. PG.

Colour Me Kubrick
Directed by Brian Cook. Magnolia Pictures. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

A Mighty Wind