One of my college history professors used to insist that the onset of revolution was the easy part, that harnessing the energy and ideology of change was just the first step, while controlling and guiding that energy was the more difficult and frequently harrowing part of the process. And as history has displayed time and again, the social and political revolutions of modern history have a nasty habit of destroying those who lit the spark, who fought and believed the hardest. Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, the 2006 winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes, echoes this sentiment by glancing to the birth of the Irish Free State and the acrimonious civil war that followed. Loach’s film is a spare, honest look at history that both celebrates the passion of righteousness and laments the death of ideology.
Beginning in the summer of 1920, Wind follows two brothers in Cork County, in the southernmost of Ireland’s provinces, who are caught in the Irish War for Independence. The British employment of paramilitary groups, (the “Black and Tans”) as part of the counter-insurgency, ushered in a particularly brutal episode of the war. The Black and Tans effectively reduced much of Ireland to a police state, committing wanton acts of violence on the resistant populace. In the midst of this are Teddy (Padraic Delaney) and Damien (Cillian Murphy), two young brothers at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Teddy is the idealist, already an experienced soldier serving in the IRA, while Damien, aloof and apolitical, has finished his training as a doctor and is poised to begin an internship in London and leave the conflict behind.
Teddy tries goading Damien into action, but to no avail. Even after a vicious shakedown by the Black and Tans results in the death of an innocent, Damien refuses to see resistance as anything but throwing one’s life away. At the train station, however, he’s moved when a group of unionized train workers led by the driver, Dan (Liam Cunningham), refuse to transport British military personnel. Though they’re beaten and intimidated for their efforts, Damien sees it as an incidence where standing up against oppression receives tangible results and, thereafter, the fire of rebellion in him is kindled, as is his socialist conscience.
Teddy and Damien then become active soldiers in the IRA, waging haphazard guerilla warfare on the paramilitaries and their supporters. Loach shows us the war in small, personal encounters: Ambushes and executions by the “flying columns” on or near the rolling Irish hills. The violence is frequently harrowing, but never sensational. In typical Loach fashion, the film keeps everyone at arm’s length, using natural lighting and sound, as if the camera is merely eavesdropping on the action, and save for a few seasoned actors like Murphy and Cunningham, the cast is made up of real locals who speak in a heavy Irish brogue that is often indecipherable. Loach finds in this approach something between realism and understatement, giving Wind an earthy, elemental mien.
Though the horrors of war rob both brothers of their innocence, the signing of the truce in 1921 seems to reward their diligence and the respite from the conflict leads to a few tender moments between Damien and his paramour, one of the rare personal scenes that give us a glimpse at his character outside of action and rhetoric. But the victory is short-lived, and the resultant treaty establishing the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland gives way to civil war.
Like Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, Loach frames the Irish Civil War in personal tones: Teddy becomes an officer in the new state’s army while Damien joins the idealistic anti-treaty forces that carry on, merely fighting an enemy with a different flag. Teddy has become the pragmatist now, accepting the conditional victory as something to be endured; Damien, however, refuses a compromise that grants limited independence and divides the nation. Their divide becomes more than an ideological one, and soon the civil war brings them to a natural, tragic confrontation.
Loach has made a very interesting film here: The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a political, historical allegory that has the rare advantage of being grounded in realism — at many times the film feels more like a period piece than anything else. But the legitimacy that Loach finds in his film techniques and Paul Laverty’s script, which hews close to real historical events, often comes at the expense of the characters, who sometimes feel like little more than the sum of their beliefs, potent as they are. The film is ripe with political ambivalence, but it would’ve been that much stronger if we could have had a closer look at the characters on a more intimate scale.
However impersonal it can seem, Loach’s Palme D’Or was well deserved both for style and content. Few filmmakers have the guts or skill to use understatement so effectively, and Wind successfully commemorates the passion that drives idealism and revolution. But he also knows better than to be optimistic — that the passion that drives this zeal in the real world is one that can’t end in anything but tragedy.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley / Phillip Stephens
Film | April 13, 2007 | Comments ()