In the United Kingdom, Ken Loach’s Palm d’Or-winning Irish drama, The Wind That Shakes the Barley created quite a stir, prompting accusations of nothing less than treachery (“Why does Ken Loach Loathe His Country So Much” was the headline of one article in Britain’s Daily Mail”) and re-igniting a complicated debate that remains tremendously sensitive on that side of the pond.
Fittingly, the discussion proved as multi-faceted as the fragmented struggle for independence that Loach’s film chronicles. Some questioned the film’s historical accuracy. Others criticized the director’s emphasis on the socialist faction of the Anti-Treaty IRA—the so-called Connollyites—and especially his supposed romanticization of Cillian Murphy’s idealist, fictional protagonist.
Of course, on the other side of the Atlantic, The Wind That Shakes the Barely stimulated far less controversy. It opened earlier this year States-side to generally polite, generally positive reviews—rather akin to the critical reception for Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, another Cannes winner by an oft-divisive European veteran returned to top form.
While North Americans have far less at stake in the history Loach is grappling with here, some of its sharper reviewers noted that, implicitly, the film has plenty to say about “troubles” outside of Ireland, drawing potent parallels with the current quagmire in Iraq. There’s no stretch required to connect those dots, and certainly Loach, no friend to capitalist imperialism, didn’t allow room for such suggestions by accident.
In other words, this is a movie that matters. And, contrary to what some reactionary English columnists would have you believe, it’s thoughtful enough not to choose sides in its vivid presentation of Ireland’s Civil War. There’s a sad, haunted grace inserted into every frame. If Loach mourns the execution of an IRA rebel, his broader concern is what such an event represents. Who determines what constitutes “terrorism”, he seems to instinctively wonder. If you don’t accept that inquiry as valid, if the idea of it being posed and explored at any length pisses you off, then, well, this film probably isn’t for you. But if you’re willing to follow Loach’s train of thought to its harrowing end, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is deeply rewarding.
The film’s most powerful moment comes about midway through. The IRA troop led by Murphy’s Damien O’ Donovan and his older brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) is tipped off that a close friend of theirs, a timid teenager named Chris Reilly (John Crean), had divulged information to the Black and Tans (the notoriously vicious paramilitary unit meant to prevent revolution in Ireland)—a coerced confession that lead to the deaths of three IRA members. We, the audience, were already aware of this: a few scenes earlier, we watched as young Chris’s family was threatened to be killed unless he talked. After learning the informant’s identity, Damien, with an unbearably heavy heart, knows what must be done. He asks Chris for his letters (“Ma can’t read”, he answers) and if he’s said his prayers. “I’ll protect you”, Damien promises just before firing a bullet into his young friend’s chest. “I hope this Ireland we’re fighting for is worth it”, he sourly muses.
It’s a wrenching sequence, to be sure, and the decisive point-of-no-return for Damien, a good-natured doctor headed to practice medicine in London before he was persuaded by Teddy to take up arms. Symbolically, it also functions to represent a turning point in this Revolution or, indeed, any such campaign anywhere in the world. In one painful, difficult-to-watch scene, Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty speak volumes about the real sacrifices required in devoting oneself fully to a cause. A readiness to lay down your own life in the spirit of patriotism is one thing; having to take others’ lives—friends, family even—as a means to that end is another matter altogether.
Loach sympathizes with Damien’s revolutionary convictions insofar as he believes that Ireland deserved its sovereignty and also that the principles of socialism effectively serve the greater good. But at what cost, the director wonders? Critics who rushed to accuse Loach of putting his central character on a hero’s pedestal should take another look at the scene I’ve described—or one a little later, where he hides and watches as his sweetheart is tortured. There’s a marked difference between supporting certain political ideals and accepting murder and other acts of brutality as “necessary evils”. Where a movie like, say, Braveheart is driven by a single-minded sense of ready-made (and historically oblivious) mythologization, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a work of supreme ambivalence.
The DVD includes the excellent, illuminating documentary Carry on Ken: A Look at the Work of Director Ken Loach, which follows the now 71-year-old auteur from grammar school to the BBC to Cannes and beyond. Loach also provides audio commentary, along with Cork University Professor Donal O’ Driscoll, the film’s historical advisor. What more can you ask for from a non-Criterion release?