Friday, March 02, 2007

Film Review #87: The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Pádraic Delaney, Orla Fitzgerald

Director Ken Loach’s film about Ireland’s convulsions in the early 1920s arrives on US shores nearly a year after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The Wind That Shakes the Barley depicts one stage in the birth of the modern Irish state, including the island’s partition by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, through the lives of fictional brothers Damien and Teddy O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney). Two criticisms leveled at the film plus some unfamiliarity with the history might put a dent in American audiences who would otherwise head for this masterfully acted and affecting film.

Immediate, furious accusations that the film portrays British behavior in an excessively brutal light took center stage at Cannes. Making no bones about his intent to draw parallels with the current war in Iraq, Loach focuses on the several groups of British military forces at work in Ireland: the Black and Tans (so nick-named for their uniform colors and comprised mainly of demobilized World War I British troops) who terrorized the countryside, the Royal Irish Constabulary who interrogated suspected rebels, and the Auxiliary troops. None come off as gallant, but then neither does the Irish Free State army.

A more muted complaint – perhaps disappointment is more accurate – concerned expectations about cinema’s approach to history. For example, writing last May from Cannes for Variety, Derek Elley called The Wind That Shakes the Barley an “essentially small-scale pic [that] lacks the involving sweep of Loach’s earlier historical-political yarn, Land and Freedom, and looks likely to reap only modest returns in general arenas.”

One could argue that there are some fairly sweeping landscape shots and one thrilling scene in which the sound of marching Irish rebels precedes them emerging from the fog. Yet it’s true that Loach sets this film in the deceptively quiet county-side with a relatively small cast. Instead of scanning a vast historical horizon, Loach instead plunges deep into memory’s vertical shaft. Irish efforts at independence span more than eight centuries, so Loach’s fitting approach refreshes our understanding of why the image of the well so often stands for a nourishing, sustaining collective memory.

One scene illustrates this particularly. It’s evening at a tiny, poor mountain farm in County Cork – actually a center of resistance to British rule. Damien has abandoned his plan to study medicine in London to join the Irish rebels in which his older, ever critical brother Teddy is already a leader. Damien has walked all day into these remote hills to this safe house, entrusted with two hostages. Chris is a young farm hand who informed on the rebels when police threatened his family with arrest and eviction. Chris and Damien grew up together. The other hostage is the wealthy landowner Hamilton, who helped police locate and pressure Chris. The old couple has a few goats, a crippled dog and three pictures on their wall. The old farmer asks Hamilton about what Hamilton’s land produces – as portraits of Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and the Scared Heart of Jesus look on. Hamilton – the old farmer calls him “a fat one – looks like Henry VIII” – insists the land was handed down in his family. Finally the old farmer remarks, “My people once had land down there too. Sure it’s very good of you to come up the mountain for a little visit to the original owners.”

An Irish audience would recognize those three portraits and the depth they provide to the old farmer’s exchange with Hamilton well before the old man’s tone turns sarcastic. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is defiantly Roman Catholic in the context of occupation by Protestant England. As head of the United Irishmen, Wolfe Tone, a Protestant from the loyalist north, supported the revolt of 1798 – a moral stand in clear contrast to the Protestant landowner Hamilton’s collusion with the English. Robert Emmet, who escaped to France after the 1798 revolt, returned in 1803 only to face torture, and execution. Unlike young Chris, who caves in quickly to police demands, Emmet’s housekeeper Anne Devlin endured torture and her entire family’s jailing – a nine-year-old brother died in the harsh conditions – rather than inform on Emmet. Those portraits on the isolated hovel’s wall are like the trio of “Abraham, Martin and John” gracing many African American parlors dating from the US Civil Rights era – an era that also gave us the observation, “When you are fighting for justice, it helps to know your grandmother would approve.”

Despite what it costs him, Damien executes Chris and Hamilton and then walks all day back into these hills again to bring Chris’ mother to her son’s grave. The Wind That Shakes the Barley may be framed on its surface as a brothers-in-arms story. Damien joins Teddy’s cause, then refuses the compromise Anglo-Irish Treaty, setting him at odds with Teddy and the Irish Free State army during the short, bloody civil war. But the film’s real pitch is intergenerational.

Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty accomplish this greater depth by using women characters much as they used those portraits on the farmhouse wall. Damien’s life-long friendship with Sinéad (Orla Fitzgerald) evolves to intimacy as he takes increasingly clearer stands, but after all he has grown up nearly adopted by this household of women. Sinéad’s elderly grandmother Peggy (Mary O’Riordan) is counterpart to the old farmer on the mountain. Both literally feed the young rebels, but their keen memory and their example are equally sustaining. Loach and Laverty provide women characters whose activities personify the support for independence deeply embedded in the community. As part of the organized women’s group Cumman na mBann, Sinéad hides and transports rifles, delivers messages on her bicycle after flirting with British guards, and acts as a magistrate in a village-level court set up in opposition to the British system officially in place. Working out justice on that so-called small scale – Sinéad and Teddy disagree on how to handle a shopkeeper who charges excessive interest to customers but buy rifles for the IRA – may tell us more about which side is really winning a war than large-scale battles.

Turkey’s government still officially denies the 1915 Armenian genocide while many Turkish artists, journalists and intellectuals move toward more open discussion of those years. Similarly, there remains extreme resistance in England to acknowledging the reign of terror by the Black and Tans during Ireland’s transitional period – and some films like this one explore this knot. Loach has approached the Irish question before, in his gripping 1990 film Hidden Agenda about political intrigue in Belfast (a wonderful role for Brian Cox, lately of HBO's Deadwood), and he has a long trail of films that address social and political issues at a micro level. So because this is what Orla Fitzgerald calls “a Ken film,” Damien meets the train engineer Dan (Liam Cunningham) during the railroad union’s refusal to transport British troops and it’s then Dan, whose own past as a poor man, labor organizer and socialist unfolds, who most often accompanies – and interprets events to – this young doctor already prone to see war through the lens of individual suffering.

The National Photo Archives in Dublin had an exhibit last spring of photos from the Irish towns and countryside during the period this film covers. There’s no denying Loach has captured the look of that time and place and its people. He has also captured what animates us still about those days.

This review appeared in on 3/2/07, the date of the US limited release of The Wind That Shakes the Barley.