Perhaps Ken Loach’s most well known film, the 2006 international hit The Wind That Shakes the Barley could also be seen as his most ambitious. Set during the Irish War of Independence and then the Irish Civil War, Loach’s film is an unequivocally substantial story for locals and foreigners alike. There are gunfights, high-level government meetings, and plenty of other sets, characters, and actions that many would picture requiring a big budget.
Yet the director known for his hard-and-fast shooting style keeps his methods intact, and the picture benefits all the more from his approach. It helps that Paul Laverty’s touching script focuses on two brothers who become fed up with the crown’s oppression. Laverty and Loach, long-term collaborators who the latter described as “filmmakers” above all else, find the intimate parts of the story and maximize them in a way that conveys both the national and familial consequences.
Certainly aided by a fine performance from Cillian Murphy, Loach’s film feels deeply personal. The director has been telling stories focusing on western European problems for decades, but here he’s dealing with more than metaphor-laden fiction. These wars really happened even if the brothers didn’t exist exactly as they do on screen. The discussions of the movement’s goals are just as riveting as the heartbreaking battle scenes. This couldn’t have happened without the soft touch of the writer and director. Laverty and Loach honor the movement’s ideals while rightly refusing to choose a side once Ireland—and it citizen opinion—splits.
Loach’s part in the social realism movement may have reached its peak with The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Not only does the story focus on a rebellion started to help the working class of Ireland overcome oppression from an upper class British regime. Not only was it made as an independent production with a strong foothold in realism. Not only did a director famous for successfully propagating both the style and ideals of each movement helm it. It also earned Loach the highest recognition of his career.
In 2006, there was an overabundance of high-level films competing for the Palme d’Or at the French film festival. Big names behind the camera who had made big hits internationally already were competing for Cannes’ top prize. Pedro Almodovar was there with Volver. Sofia Coppola premiered Marie Antoinette, her follow-up to Lost In Translation. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was even there with his Brad Pitt-starring, eventual Best Picture nominee (likely runner-up) Babel.
Then there was Ken Loach, a respected artist whose films were festival favorites but box office poison. Loach had been nominated for the award seven times prior and never won. He was even given an honorary award two years earlier, the equivalent of Oscar’s lifetime achievement award that is both a recognition of what you’ve done and what you were unable to do (actually win). Could he and his little movie from Ireland really compete with the marketing savvy of the big Hollywood studio, not to mention the budgets provided by them? Absolutely. The Wind That Shakes the Barley took down the big dogs to win the Palme d’Or in a symbolic statement even the most money-hungry studio executive had to appreciate.