The Wind That Shakes the Barley ***1/2
Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney, Orla Fitzgerald
Directed by Ken Loach
Social realist filmmaker Loach tackles the Irish troubles in this grim drama, which spares no opportunity to show the soul-deadening monotony of the epic conflict between Irish separatists and their British oppressors. Known for his left-wing politics, Loach certainly doesn’t offer any sympathy for the British here, but he also allows the ugliness of many Irish Republican Army tactics to come through clearly. In the end, it’s not the British who cause the most trouble for protagonist Damien O’Donovan (Murphy); it’s his own brother, Teddy (Delaney), when the two end up on opposite sides of the Irish Civil War in the 1920s.
The movie begins with a symbolic field hockey match, the referee admonishing the participants not to fight amongst themselves. It might be an obvious bit of foreshadowing, but it’s also an economical way to show how dedicated these Irish working-class lads are to their personal notions of fairness and loyalty. That same sense of fair play motivates Damien to abandon his plans of moving to London to practice medicine and instead stay in his home country to fight with the IRA against occupying British forces.
Initially the soft-spoken one who expresses doubts about what he and his fellow guerrillas are doing (“I hope this Ireland we’re fighting for is worth it,” he says), Damien soon becomes a fervent socialist willing to do anything, no matter how unpleasant or morally questionable, to further the cause. When the IRA signs a treaty with the British government, Teddy becomes a soldier of the new Irish Free State, while Damien remains a freedom fighter who won’t accept the compromises in the peace agreement
Things head quietly and steadily toward disaster, but it’s a well-acted disaster that doesn’t seem contrived, merely inevitable. There is minimal explicit discussion of politics; no one ever mentions why the British are there or what’s so important about getting them out, and Damien develops his socialist ideology entirely off-screen.
Instead, Loach remains focused on the personal, which serves best to highlight the seriousness of the political with which it intersects.