An Earnest Look at a Violent Past

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IFC First Take

A still from Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

The title does not exactly sing seductively: The Wind that Shakes the Barley. What are we talking about here — agronomy? Nor does its narrative — 1920s Ireland in the throes of what we would now call an "insurgency" — provide the analogies to current events that it would have been easy to make. Then there's the Ken Loach problem. He is a mild-mannered English leftist who has been for years making earnest, naturalistic, rather conventionally mounted studies about working-class topics that do not make the cinephile's aesthete spirit leap in anticipation. He's the kind of guy who turns down decorations from the Queen because he loathes the evil — or at least twitish — company he would have to keep on her honor's list. Put it simply: Almodovar he is not.

Yet Barley won the Palme D'Or at last year's Cannes film festival and despite its length (over two hours) and some structural problems, it is an absorbing, worthwhile and often passionate movie. Yes, it has a certain medicinal virtue; it is not easy to take. But it also has extraordinary dramatic power and because Loach is an honest and honorable craftsman, it often betrays his own sympathies.

These, naturally are with the Irish Republican Army: a small, beleaguered guerrilla group, fighting in the years immediately after World War I for independence from British rule, which was then being enforced by the Black and Tans, vicious and largely undisciplined soldiers recruited from the demobilized English army and functioning in Ireland as terrorist-enforcers of the status quo. Loach's film, written by Paul Laverty, focuses on a Sinn Fein (or revolutionist) "flying column" operating in County Cork, with special emphasis on a gentle young doctor, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and his more hot-headed brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney), who is the group's leader. Theirs is a life of midnight raids on British barracks, roadside ambushes, betrayals, captivity (which includes brutal torture) and the meting out of summary justice to informers, all of which Loach captures with potent realism.

By 1922 the IRA wins an ambiguous victory — a treaty providing dominion status within the British Empire, a measure of self-rule but not full independence. Part of the IRA goes back to war; Damien, rather surprisingly among them, but with Teddy, even more surprisingly, donning the uniform of the Free State. If you guess, at this point, that the film is heading for a brother-against-brother tragedy, you would not be wrong.

It is between these two insurgencies, that Loach's film encounters its largest structural problem. Basically, he gathers most of his flying column figures in a room and sets them to yelling at one another about whether the half-loaf of freedom offered by the treaty with the Brits can satisfy the national hunger for full-scale independence. He gives the ameliorists a fair hearing, but most decide to return to the opposition. Despite the impassioned rhetoric of the meeting, it is, admittedly, a stage wait. Yet it is also, I think, a measure of Loach's high intentions that he gives it to us in full.

It is necessary to those intentions because despite his obvious sympathy for the revolutionaries, it is not his desire to romanticize them. Most of their activities are, frankly, grubby. And their responses to Black and Tan violence are no less bloody than the atrocities visited on them. There's nearly always a tendency in movies about revolutions to glamorize and ennoble the oppressed but that's not the purport of this film. We get to know the revolutionaries — there's a sweetly tentative romance between Damien and a woman named Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) that is the more touching because it so gently stated — and we like them in part because they are reluctant warriors, particularly when they must dispense with their own countrymen, who lack their righteous fervor. Yet we also cannot escape the feeling that some of their murderousness is meaningless — as terrorism so often is.

One emerges from The Wind That Shakes the Barley with a very acute sense of the mess and muddle of revolutionary action, a feeling that though the cause being served may be fine in principle, the means by which it is being advanced are ambiguous, soul-wasting. And perpetually haunting.

The "troubles" that began in Ireland almost a hundred years ago, did not end with the response to the Free State election, even though the revolutionary answer to it was rather quickly put down. They have persisted into our own times and Loach's film is permeated with an unspoken acknowledgment of that fact. Nor can we ignore that other insurgencies, engendered largely by the stupidity and arrogance of imperialist powers, are everywhere present in our own world — though, again, Loach allows our thoughts to drift in that direction without guidance from him. Loach may not be a sockeroo filmmaker — I think he is a sufficient one in his slightly stodgy way — but he is manifestly a good and thoughtful man and The Wind That Shakes the Barley represents his gifts at something like their best. It is more than worth your while.