Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/22/09.
One of Britain's most revered and controversial directors. Ken Loach has made films often dealing with social struggles and political issues. Loach's affiliation with socialist idealism has often put him at odds with people in the film industry despite being a prominent figure in the late 60s and 1970s through TV and film. By the 1980s, he became independent as his films were no longer commercially viable though a revival came in the 1990s. Even as he was considered to be influential by many directors including Steven Soderbergh who put footage of Loach's first film Poor Cow in his 1999 film The Limey. Then in 2006, Loach was in the spotlight again for his most profiled film yet about the Irish conflict with the British with the film The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Directed by Ken Loach and written by Paul Laverty, The Wind That Shakes the Barley tells the story of two brothers fighting in the Irish War of Independence against the British and later, the Irish Civil War. A film that reveals in the Irish conflict against the British as well as its own conflict within the country, the film also upholds Loach's social idealism as well in this haunting yet realistic tale of conflict. Starring Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham, Orla Fitzgerald, and Roger Allam. The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a haunting yet mesmerizing masterpiece from Ken Loach.
It's 1920 Ireland as a group of men playing hurling come home only to be visited by angry members of the British Army known as Blacks & Tans. A young man named Micheal O'Suillebhean (Laurence Barry) is tortured and killed for not saying his name. For a young man named Damian O'Donovan (Cillian Murphy), who was about to leave to become a doctor in London. This incident along with another incident involving a railway guard and a train driver (Liam Cunningham) being beaten has forced Damien to join the Irish Republic Army. Leading the local column of the army is Damien's brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) as they all prepare to fight a war with the British. After some small victories in attack barracks for supplies and killing four officers at a pub, the little victories seem to go well. Unfortunately, a young named Chris Reilly (John Crean) was forced by a landowner in Sir John Hamilton (Roger Allam) to give out information.
The O'Donovan brothers plus several members of the IRA including the train driver named Dan were captured. Teddy was tortured for information which he refused to give while Damien befriends Dan as they share socialist views. After trying to play mental games with an officer, Damien is beaten as a young soldier named Johnny Gogan (William Ruane) was unable to kill Damien. Later on, Johnny helps free several members as three were forced to be left behind. After capturing Sir Hamilton and Chris Reilly, the news about the three left behind forced Damien to make decisions under the orders of the IRA. Months later with the British having trouble defeating the Irish, an Irish government was made but problems still happened over how to get funding for guns and such with Dan stating claims about what to do.
The battle rages on despite some losses and attacks at the home of Damien's girlfriend Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) in which she was tortured. The Irish won the war as for a while, it seemed like absolute victory but it didn't grant complete independence from the British. Teddy is convinced that the treaty will avoid further wars against the British but Damien disagrees as he and Dan demand total independence from Britain. Thus starting the Irish Civil War with Teddy on the Free State side and Damien, Dan, and several of the old gang at the Anti-Treaty side. What would happen would tear apart a family as well as Ireland itself for many years.
The film is about conflict that relates to Ireland's struggle for independence that would later lead to civil war until 1949 when it broke completely from England. While screenwriter Paul Laverty creates a film that is part history-lesson but also part drama, it does reveal the Irish struggle against the British and why the treaty divided Ireland. Particularly with its views on socialism that was prominent for those who were against the treaty. While Laverty shows into why those who went for the treaty just so they could avoid war with Britain. Still, it's more of a socialist film with a socialist point of view spurned by its director Ken Loach. It doesn't mean he is trying to force his ideals to the audience but does make his point about what the Irish had to go through.
The screenplay is well structured with the first act about the Irish conflict with the British and Damien's decision to join the IRA and what he had to do. The second act being about the victory against the British and the hopes for an independent Ireland. The third act is about the Irish Civil War and the conflict between the brothers Damien and Teddy. All of that is well-told from the eye-wielding, engaging direction of Ken Loach. Loach's direction is filled with great long shots of the Irish countryside that has a wide depth of field. He also goes for close-ups to be part of the battle scenes while done with great style and almost documentary-like. Though there's no shaky hand-held work as it's mostly shot on steadicams and some still, tripod shots. Loach's direction is indeed phenomenal in playing up to the drama as well as being true to the history of Ireland as he creates a film that is engaging and powerful.
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd does fantastic work with the film's greenish, colorful look of Ireland with its rough yet haunting shots of the film's exteriors on the countryside. While there's not a lot of bright colors in the film, the dark colors of both exterior and interior settings to play up to the grim tone of the film. Editor Jonathan Morris does some excellent work with the editing in the use of smooth transitions, rhythmic jump-cuts, and fade outs to help structure the story as well as it give it a leisurely pace for its 127-minute running time where it isn't too slow but not too fast either.
Production designer Fergus Clegg along with art directors Michael Higgins and Mark Lowry do spectacular look with the look of 1920s Ireland from the pubs, homes, and places that are filled with dark colors and old cars that is shown throughout the film. Costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh does stellar work with the costume that plays up to the 1920s look in terms of dresses, hats, suits, and such along with its dirty look of the IRA militia group. The sound work by Ray Beckett and Kevin Brazier do great work in the location sound work that is captured from the battle scenes to the raucous fight and pub scenes that goes on. The music of George Fenton is wonderfully plaintive with broad arrangements and melodies relating to Irish folk music along with the use of traditional ballads in Gaelic and English to play up to the film's historical tone.
The casting by Oonagh Kearney is phenomenal with some notable small roles from Diarmuid Ni Mheachair as a sick boy Damien treats, Nora Lynch as the sick boy's mother, Fiona Lawton as an Irish government official, Mary Murphy as Sinead's sister Bernadette, Mary O'Riordan as Sinead's grandmother Peggy, Damien Kearney as IRA member Finbar, Martin Lucey as IRA official Congo, and Myles Horgan as the crazed IRA soldier Rory. Other memorable small roles from Aiden O'Hare as IRA soldier Steady Boy, Laurence Barry as Micheal O'Suillebhean, John Crean as Chris Reilly, and William Ruane as British soldier turned IRA soldier Johnny Gogan. Noted character actor Roger Allam has a very memorable role as Sir John Hamilton, a British official who captures members of the IRA only to be captured later on.
Orla Fitzgerald is excellent as Sinead, a fellow Irish messenger to the IRA who is also Damien's longtime love as she helps fight the British and side with Damien over the treaty. Liam Cunningham is superb as Dan, a Socialist who fights for the IRA in his hopes for a free Ireland as he reveals why there should be a free Ireland. Cunningham's performance is truly the film's best supporting performance as he delivers such passion and angst into his role. Padraic Delaney is great as Teddy O'Donovan, the older brother who runs a local section of the IRA in his hopes for Irish independence from the British. Yet, when he becomes part of the pro-treaty side, he is conflicted though his intentions are to hope for a peaceful Ireland unaware of his brother's passion for a free Ireland.
Finally, there's Cillian Murphy in what is truly a tour-de-force performance as Damien O'Donovan. Murphy's performance is filled with lots of development as he starts out as an innocent man with dreams to be a doctor. Then after facing the harsh realities of what is going on to his people, he becomes a passionate, angry young man. Murphy's energetic, passionate, and broad performance as it's really the best film role of his career. Even as he goes into fights while leading the IRA during the Civil War as he stands by in his views in his belief for what is right for his country.
The film premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival where it played in competition and became the surprise hit of the festival. The acclaim and surprising reaction helped the film win the Palme D'or beating several contenders vying for the prize. A month later, the film was released in Britain and Ireland to some controversy but did gain rave reviews through a year later when it came out in the U.S. For Ken Loach, the film raised his profile as he began to make more films frequently once again.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a harrowing yet powerful film from Ken Loach helmed by Cillian Murphy's superb performances. Fans of Ken Loach films will definitely enjoy the engaging approach and devotion to history over the Irish conflict with British and the Irish Civil War. It's a film that is both a great historical drama while also being a wonderful history lesson about Ireland. While some might not agree with Loach's Socialist views, the film does reveal the issues raised from the Irish over their conflict with Britain. In the end, it's a superbly crafted and mesmerizing film from Ken Loach.
Ken Loach Films: (Cathy Come Home) - (Poor Cow) - Kes - (The Save the Children Fund Film) - (Family Life) - (The Price of Coal) - (Black Jack) - (The Gamekeeper) - (Looks and Smiles) - (Which Side Are You On?) - (Fatherland) - (Hidden Agenda) - (Riff-Raff) - (Raining Stones) - (Ladybird Ladybird) - (Land and Freedom) - (A Contemporary Case of Common Ownership) - (Carla’s Song) - (The Flickering Flame) - (McLibel (1)) - (My Name is Joe) - (Bread & Roses) - (The Navigator) - Sweet Sixteen - (Ae Fond Kiss…) - (Tickets) - (McLibel (2)) - It’s a Free World... - Looking for Eric - (Route Irish) - (The Angel's Snare) - (The Spirit of '45) - Jimmy's Hall - (I, Daniel Blake)