Winner of the 2006 Palm d'Or
Director: Ken Loach
Writing: Paul Laverty
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is Ken Loachs latest ode to those that had to betray their better angels for something they more or less believed in. Staunchly socialist and drawing criticisms for his success in Cannes, Loach thankfully refuses to pander to both sides. He sticks to his figurative guns by unapologetically crafting a one-sided view on a subject that he feels confident in, much like Land and Freedom. It does not support so much as condemn and shows how the violent trajectory of the IRAs policies and actions throughout the years came to be. In the end, it is not so much the political polemic as many as claim or hope it is, but a pointed political examination of the dread that war drums up amidst the quixotic ideals of patriotism and martyrdom.
Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torments of man. Nietzsche
An occupation starts to take shape in 1920s, Ireland when the British send in their military squads known as the Black and Tans. The film is keen to point out that these soldiers are remnants of the cruelty that World War I had left in its wake. The much-reviled British soldiers are caricatured as brutes, but in truth, they give off a sense of desperate senselessness by reluctantly laying their humanity on the line for a cause not all of them believe in. And that can very well be said for the Republicans as well. There are no winners. There are no saviours. There are only choices to be made. The lines that are crossed define these characters.
Damien (Cillian Murphy), a young trainee doctor abandons a potentially fruitful career in London to join up with his brother, Teddy (Padraic Delany) a political firebrand for the local resistance movement, the last bastion of hope for many. After certain events, Damien is urged to join up and relent working for the Brits. Though sensitive and acquiescent in disposition, he gradually numbs himself to the sanguinary nature of rebellion and gives up his tourniquet for a rudimentary rifle.
The full-blooded cinematography is in stark contrast to the gray, bleak world that is being depicted. A quick check shows the unsurprising inclusion of frequent Loach collaborator, Barry Ackroyd, responsible for its masterful cinematography. Its pastoral simplicity is engulfed in a complex battle of principles as blood is shed indiscriminately upon its meadows. Hillside ambushes amidst the foliage lead to stained verdure and the deathly calm aftermath as the survivors tally the casualties. It starts to eat away at the vigilance of these men as it hauntingly signifies whats to come.
Soon the subterfuge, clandestine assassinations and abuse their womenfolk receive by protecting them start to take their toll on these men. As soon as a truce is called, many of them rejoice even though they know that they are still not truly sovereign. But at least the violence ceases and the impunity lifted over the despicable abuses of power. The Anglo-Irish Peace Treaty is signed, forming the Irish Free State that remains under the dominion of the British Empire, and strictly loyal to the monarchy. Teddy, jaded from fighting the good fight, chooses the respite from the constant struggle. To complicate matters further, Damien is adamant that a truly independent state will only come if they shake off the British shackles. They are pitted against each others perfidy as tragic and powerful metaphors fuel the backdrop of their waning ambitions, slowly finding themselves fighting against something and forgetting what they were initially fighting for.
It rescinds on Michael Collinss historical role in establishing the Irish Free State, Loach takes the unorthodox approach in dismantling the self-serving romanticised paradox of freedom fighting from within. The terms, oppressors and victims are routinely switched around. Casual as that sounds, it truly signifies the futility of violence for the sake of ideology. They constantly feud while on the same side as the gasconading bravado of its masculine characters threaten to implode their united and spirited response towards their occupiers. It does begin by not fully romanticising the idea of rebellion and justice being served swiftly and without recrimination. But the temptation to do so never full dissipates as a burgeoning romance grows between Damien and Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald), a fiery character opposed to the aggression that ensues on both sides. Loach lingers on the violence and the cost of uprising against a battle that is there to be lost. The shots are measured from a distance, mourning the circumstances. Gracefully mixing up a downbeat sense of loss with a blend of impassioned rhetoric and cinematic brutality, it accomplishes an appropriately funereal atmosphere in each of its scenes.
Time passes arbitrarily, while observing the ad hoc building of plans and situations, which is viewed with underwhelming anticipation. There is something so disconnecting in its quick scene after powerful scene. While the dialogue is seemingly crisp and natural between the Republicans, it is also unusually fast and highly derivative, commanding all attention. The dependence of the dialogue and inherently dragging pace threatens to overpower the raw intensity of the actions. The latter half does tend to veer towards melodrama, and over-wrought scenes of verbose, passionate speeches strangely switches allegiances of the fighters at the drop of a dime. It is most convincing, not by its words but by its actions as clearly seen in its opening minutes. That single event polarises young Damien into the politicised man we follow throughout the film.
While the address on ideologies tends to overshadow the film itself, it does accomplish many moments of clarity with the strength of its performers. Loachs intimidating political affiliations aside, it is generally well made. Recreated with such insight and groundwork, his commitment shines through at every level. As with all his films, the ardent and sincere look at politics through his characters distinguishes them as people caught in a whirlpool of despair. They show lament, fear and even some apathy to the choices they have before them.
It draws undeniable parallels to contemporary deliberations about the conflict in the Middle East and insurgency against the US and Britain. There is a distinct disgust at the idea of militarism and clerical influence in the state. The urban guerilla freedom fighters are just ordinary folk caught in a landslide of activism, straddling the thin line overflowing with brutality and the excruciating agony of guilt while not becoming intoxicated by the violence. Entrenched with the an eye for an eye dogma, it signifies the mutually ruinous end of all. By accentuating the power of choices, it prods us to witness the inner struggle of finding a footing in the slippery slopes of warfare.