Ken Loach turns 70 on 17 June, but Britain's most polemical and politically committed film-maker shows no sign of softening in his old age. His latest film, about the 1920s civil war in Ireland, may have won him the Palme d'Or, but it has been greeted by howls of protest from the British press even before its release. Simon Heffer, writing in the Daily Telegraph, called Loach a "bigoted Marxist" and the film "poisonous" - while admitting he had not even seen it. The Sun has called it a "brutally anti-British film".
In fact, although The Wind That Shakes the Barley is Loach's most expensive film to date (he had a budget of £4.5m), it is certainly not his best; it gets as bogged down as the soldiers did in Ireland's muddy fields. It won the Palme d'Or partly because Cannes has loved Loach for years (this award was a bit like one of those Best Actor Oscars for the man who had previously always just missed out), but also because of its political content. The sympathies of the Cannes jury have produced some surprising winners over the years. Two years ago, Michael Moore took the same prize for Fahrenheit 9/11 - likewise, not his best film, but its stance against corporate America and George Bush won over the judges. This year's jury was chaired by the director Wong Kar-wai who, coming from the former colony of Hong Kong, may have taken a dim view of the British imperialism that Loach's film depicts.
Loach is explicit about the parallels between his latest work and events in Iraq. "Our little film is about a step, a very little step, in the British confronting their imperialist history. And if we can tell the truth about the past, then maybe we can tell the truth about the present . . . I don't need to [talk about] where the British now illegally have an army of occupation, and the damage in casualties and brutality that is emerging from that."
So why not make a film about Iraq? After all, Channel 4 has just begun shooting for Tony Marchant's Mark of Cain, about British troops' mistreatment of the Iraqis. Loach says he would be interested in making a movie about the Iraq war. "But if I were to come at it, we would need to understand the role of ordinary Iraqis. For me, what is happening to them is more interesting than anything else."
This response is typical of Loach. Throughout his career he has shown a natural empathy for the underprivileged, the oppressed and the underdog, from the working-class Glaswegians in My Name is Joe (1998) to Californian immigrant workers in Bread and Roses (2000). The Wind That Shakes the Barley is his second film about Ireland. The first, Hidden Agenda (1990), was caricatured as the IRA's official entry when it showed at Cannes. Now Loach has chosen to return to a period of British-Irish history which, he says, is largely ignored in the press and the British education system.
"The teachers did a body swerve around Ireland and our treatment of the Irish," he says of his own A-level in modern history. "When it is presented, it's as if the Irish can't stop fighting themselves."
Loach eventually learned about Ireland from his former co-writer Jim Allen, with whom he worked on the television series Days of Hope, as well as films such as Hidden Agenda, Raining Stones and Land and Freedom, which is set during the Spanish civil war. His connection with Ireland continues today through his collaboration with the screenwriter Paul Laverty.
Although the director Paul Greengrass and the writer Jimmy McGovern have both tackled Bloody Sunday in the past, and Channel 4 is now making a picture about the hunger striker Bobby Sands, Loach maintains that it is very difficult to make films, either for television or the cinema, about Irish history. "It's not seen as a sexy subject," he says. "We are told that we have it on our TV screens every night, and so we won't want it at the cinema." And yet, he argues, even the news fails to give the real story. "News editors never give any context to stories about Ireland."
Loach's next film, These Times, will chart quite a different course. It focuses on the problems faced by eastern European immigrants arriving in new Labour's Britain - an intriguing prospect, given that Loach's hatred of Tony Blair and his cronies is well documented. He has said that he would "run a mile from being associated with new Labour. Blair is only interested in what the business community thinks." In recent years, he has campaigned actively for George Galloway's Respect party, though the two later fell out over the MP's appearance on Big Brother.
For Loach, the enemy is nearly always the state, not the citizens - a position he uses to defend himself against the allegation that The Wind That Shakes the Barley is anti-British. "I'd encourage people to see their loyalties horizontally, across national boundaries, so that this isn't a film about the Brits bashing the Irish," he says. "People have much more in common with people in the same social position in other countries than they do with, say, those at the top of their own society. People confuse the government with the people."
Throughout his career, Loach has steadfastly remained a man of the people. Actors who have worked with him, particularly the young ones, enthuse about the paternal way he encourages them (even if they are sometimes frustrated by his secrecy about the script). I once rang this garlanded director's mobile to find him travelling on the bus. And he is a dedicated supporter of Bath City FC, a team that has never made it into League football. It seems entirely appropriate for a man who likes to kick against the pricks.
"The Wind That Shakes the Barley" is released on 23 June