Here, director Ken Loach takes a stab at exploring the long-simmering tensions in Ireland that exploded in 1920, as guerilla columns fought against the British military forces that had been deployed to block the movement for Irish independence. The result of the violent struggle was a truce and a treaty — which only splintered the country into a state of civil war between those who were happy to see the feared “black and tan” squads leave and those who felt that the Irish deserved a more decisive break from the British government. Loach works with a screenplay by Paul Laverty that essentially compresses the passions of the struggle into the story of two brothers who fight together but end up taking opposite sides after the treaty is signed. Though the brother-versus-brother clichés are pretty hoary, Loach has a no-nonsense approach to this style of filmmaking, and though the film is perhaps overlong and a mite formulaic, it’s gripping.
Cillian Murphy brings a slow smolder to Damien, a character who’s defined in large part by his relationship to brother Teddy O’Donovan, a steely, natural leader of the revolutionary movement. Loach demonstrates the moral compromises that Teddy and Damien are willing to make in the name of a greater good — executing a British land-owner or an Irish traitor without much regret — but though the film richly conveys the sense of urgency and despair that locks Damien into his role as a perpetual soldier, it’s not as interested in the eventual thinking behind Teddy’s acquiescence to an imperfect peace treaty. (I think the gist is Teddy is something of a sell-out and Damien is the film’s moral center, but I had gotten pretty impatient with both of these characters before the credits started to roll.)
Scene by scene, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is familiar but compelling. There’s an early torture scene where someone gets his fingernails pulled off as his comrades in the cell down the hall sing out through a tiny window to give him strength, and there are several depictions of the atrocities performed by sadistic British soldiers, balanced by the ferocity of the guerilla soldiers’ dedication. A long scene featuring a spirited political debate (Loach is an old hand at this) is scripted and performed with a real sense of the way people might actually talk about such stuff, and the cinematography (by Barry Aykroyd) leans toward the lush and green, with layers of emerald color against gently sloping hills receding into the distance. The shots showing men with rifles crawling through the grass, asses close to the ground and fire burning in their eyes, seems merely incongruous until you notice the austere but sublime beauty of Ireland itself, the earth hugged close by those young soldiers as they take up arms to defend their lifelong claim on it. It’s that odd wartime sensuality, more than the sibling melodrama, that sticks with me. B