Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

2006, Ireland/UK/Germany/France/Spain, directed by Ken Loach

The Wind that Shakes the Barley is one of the high points in Ken Loach's lengthy and busy career, stretching back to his 1960s television work, and it's also one of the strongest films dealing with the period of Irish independence and Civil War (here, 1920-1922). Like Loach's previous Land and Freedom, about the Spanish Civil War, the film blends narrative and political discussion, with the characters intermittently conducting debates about the future of Ireland; Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty find intelligent ways to integrate these segments with the rest of the action, so that they feel as though they are contributing to the narrative development rather than stopping the film in its tracks. They also contribute greatly to the growing sense that nothing in this bitter conflict is black and white, while also serving as starting points for more contemporary debates.

While the resonances with the conflict in Iraq (and, even more so, that in Israel-Palestine) are unmistakable, Loach doesn't lose sight of the fact that his story is first and foremost about Ireland, and he vividly illustrates, including for younger Irish viewers, the bitter divisions that poisoned Irish political life for decades after independence (the film helps to explain, for those who came of age in the post-Civil War political era, the rancour that characterised relations between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two main southern political parties).

As always with Loach, his one Achilles' heel is the depiction of the oppressors; he's almost incapable of creating rounded British characters, whether it be the sadistic squaddies who harass elderly Irish women, or the plummy lord around whose manor several key sequences are set; whereas the rest of the film is filled with shades of grey, here Loach hammers home his point more forcefully than is necessary. By contrast, his treatment of the Irish characters is richly nuanced, and he does a particularly fine job of illustrating the stomach-churning conflicts of loyalty that the period created, literally turning brother against brother; even the apparently heroic characters are desperately and deeply compromised by the decisions their circumstances seem to impose.

Cillian Murphy does some of his best screen work to date here; his journey from fresh-faced, idealistic student to shattered guerrilla is especially wrenching, and he has notable support from Padraic Delaney, who plays his brother, Liam Cunningham as a Dublin trade-unionist, and Orla Fitzgerald in an outstanding turn as one of the few women on the front lines. Loach also has a fine eye for the smaller parts, mixing many inexperienced faces with a few old hands and building a rich portrait of a very specific time and place.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States