The pastoral title of Ken Loach's Palme d'Or-winning new feature is heavy with irony. Within the first ten minutes of The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a group of innocent men is terrorised by soldiers, who demand names and addresses at gunpoint. When one refuses to co-operate, blows are exchanged and he is frogmarched into a barn by two of the troops. We don't see what happens in there, but it doesn't sound as if they're asking for his advice on crop rotation. Moments later, the British soldiers emerge with blood on their hands. This is Ireland, 1920, the murderers are the Black and Tans, and we are witnessing the birth of the IRA.
Although Loach has been criticised for being partial, this is no Irish Braveheart. There is little emoting here: The Wind That Shakes the Barley is dry as gunpowder. An exception is the film's outstanding sequence in which a recent recruit to the cause, Damien O'Donovan (Cillian Murphy), has to shoot a traitor. Raising his trembling gun hand, and struggling to turn away as he takes aim, he mutters bitterly: "I hope this Ireland we're fighting for is worth it." The execution is made all the more shocking by the serenity of the green countryside that provides a backdrop.
As the film begins, Damien is a young doctor bound for London. Two events halt him in his tracks - the murder of his friend in that barn, and the beating of a driver who refuses to allow British soldiers on his train. Loach cuts straight from the scene on the station platform to Damien taking the IRA oath, without any of the soul-searching or staring meaningfully at sunsets that might have been expected. The next thing we know, Damien is training with the local "flying column", and operations begin in earnest.
The furious pace is intended, I suspect, to break down any lingering political resistance in the audience. First, Damien raids a police barracks for weapons. Next, he responds violently to harassment by British officers. After the column members are betrayed and arrested, his brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) is tortured horrifically. Even if you look away during this scene, it is still agony to listen to. But Teddy won't talk. And, thanks to an Irish soldier with a key and a conscience, the members are soon back on the streets, stepping up their campaign against the British.
Loach's own campaign - to portray the noble origins of a movement long since discredited - is helped no end by Cillian Murphy. The 30-year-old has a perfect film-star face and, critically, his sense of urgency extends into the long discussion scenes. If you saw Loach's 1995 Spanish civil war film Land and Freedom, with its 15-minute debate about collectivism, you may start to get the jitters whenever five or more actors stand around talking. But Murphy animates even a debate over the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. Everyone in the audience can look in those eyes and know that something really important is at stake.
The drafting of the treaty sparks a split in the column, which rather predictably plays out as a schism between the brothers, with Teddy accepting its terms while Damien refuses to be a slave to the Union Jack, or "the butcher's apron", as he calls it. Loach has never been the most subtle of directors, and the film has all his habitual flaws. Most detrimental is the skew-whiff characterisation, which presents every British character as barking, in both senses of the word. The distinction between right and wrong is little more sophisticated than in a Star Wars movie.
And so, for that matter, is the treatment of women. Damien's girlfriend, Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald), has three functions. She carries supplies for the fighters under her bulging beret. She is obligingly assaulted by the enemy, as she would be in any Hollywood thriller. And she has Damien's supper ready for him when he returns from a hard day's bombing. All right, so I made the last one up. But in the off-key world of The Wind That Shakes the Barley, it wouldn't be entirely out of place.
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