When Ken Loach accepted the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, he offered this bit of hope: “Maybe if we tell the truth about the past, we tell the truth about the present.” It’s worth remarking that Loach’s “truth,” at least as presented in his films, has never been one thing and never intimated simple conclusions. It is, instead, a collection of stories, revealing multiple perspectives, complicating rather than reducing, possessing, or declaring.
Such hope pervades The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Though the film uses a familiar narrative form — two brothers torn apart by changing circumstances and evolving beliefs — it does so in a way that leaves the form itself in doubt, heroizing no one, offering no resolution. And so it is the telling, not the outcome, that becomes the truth. Showing the many costs of war and oppression, for fighters on all sides, the movie charts the start of the IRA (Óglaigh na hÉireann), indicting colonialism, terrorism, and the oppressions brought on by all tit-for-tat war-making, whether in the UK, the Middle East, or Africa.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley begins with a sign of what’s to come: just as a group of lads in County Cork, 1920, are done with their “hurling” match, they’re accosted by a squad of Black and Tans (British occupying soldiers), who insist that the game constitutes a breach of 1914’s Defence of the Realm Act, banning “public meetings” that threatened the British nation during WWI. Two brothers — medical student Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) — watch in horror as the soldiers assault Micheail (Laurence Barry) who refuses to say his name in English instead of Gaelic: the soldiers drag him inside a barn, tie him to a post, and beat him until he’s dead. Though Damien has planned to head to London to continue his studies, this and another incident involving British soldiers attacking an Irishman, convince him to take the IRA’s oath of loyalty.
From the start, the brothers voice differing ideas on effective action against the British. Where Teddy sees Micheail as martyr, Damien sees his point of resistance as ill-chosen. The more effective stand, he reasons, would be better well planned and broad-ranging, less personal and short-sighted. Micheail’s death leaves his family — including a sister, Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald), who gives Damien her brother’s St. Christopher medal, a sign of the film’s attention to the problematic significance and uses of martyrs in political movements. Like any resistance movement against a dominant power, the IRA seeks symbols and publicity, ways to make the occupying forces feel unable to trust their surroundings and inspire hope in the local population. Still, such formulation can’t find a rationale for individual deaths: each one is more costly than family and friends can bear.
Mairtin de Cogain as Sean, Shane Nott as Ned, Roger Allam as Sir John Hamilton, Kiernan Hegarty as Francis, Martin Lucey as Congo and Cillian Murphy as Damien
Thoughtful and passionate, Wind illustrates needs for hope on all sides (including shots of the beautiful landscape, where the militia trains, sneaks about, and conducts their attacks on the enemy). At one point the film even grants a British officer a chance to explain himself, as “following orders” and having no particular antipathy toward his prisoner Damien. Ever studied up, Damien, whose brother has just had his fingernails torn out by British “interrogators,” comes back with instruction, calling himself a “political prisoner” and the British as villains. Given the recent election in which Sinn Fein won 73 of 105 possible seats, the British government “suppresses our parliament… bans our paper. Your presence here,” Damien declares, “is a crime, a foreign occupation.” The officer has no answer but violence.
In this the officer is not alone, certainly, and Wind shows that violence as first and seemingly most effective recourse becomes the norm for all parties at war. The film follows their flying column’s diligent training, heated discussions, and assassinations (some go as planned, others do not).
Their brief and painful imprisonment brings together Damien and Dan (Liam Cunningham), a fellow James Connolly adherent; on making a hurried escape, the County Cork group is forced to leave behind several members who are promptly executed. They swear vengeance, taking yet another step into the tactical abyss that will inevitably reshape their goals. Damien, the most reluctant warrior, executes two informants, one a young, frightened, and remorseful neighbor. Damien looks him in the eye, asks, “Have you said your prayers?”, then shoots him in the head. The camera pulls back as Damien stalks off through the meadow, his stilted gait telling all you need to know about his confusion and rage. He does what he believes he must, and yet he hates what he has become.
Padraic Delaney as Teddy, Aidan O’Hare as Steady Boy and Cillian Murphy as Damien
It’s not long before Damien and his fellows are arguing over how to handle their success. When they take back their town and institute a government, with judicial panels and a police force, they soon run up against practical concerns. A banker who helps with the supply of guns is accused of instituting unfair interest rates against poor farmers (some 500%), but Rory (Myles Horgan) insists that he must be let off, for the war is the greater good that must be served. Men like the banker “give us rifles,” he asserts, “that’s more important than a box of fucking groceries: a little clarity now, in the name of God.”
As the film insists, however, such clarity is increasingly impossible. As the sides become progressively interdependent, ideals give way to compromises. When, in December 1921, Michael Collins signs the Anglo-Irish peace treaty, the County Cork group watches the announcement in a theater on a silent newsreel, their faces bright with light reflected off the screen as the piano player’s upbeat accompaniment suggests that the spectacle unfolding brings good news. But the audience members’ huzzahs soon give way to jeers. On the announcement that under the treaty, Ireland remains a dominion of the British Empire, Damien asks loudly, “This is what we fought for, is it?”
With this turn of events, the group fragments completely, Teddy maintaining that the treaty is a practical interim agreement (“Do you really think they’d let [Collins] give the green light to nationalists in India in Africa and the whole fucking empire by giving us complete independence?”) while Damien argues that “Our puppet parliament on a leash is business as usual.” The war persists, the brothers’ split becomes intractable. As Wind offers up this difficult truth, it does not compromise.