"If we dare to tell the truth about the past, perhaps we shall dare tell the truth about the present." -Ken Loach, 2006 Cannes Film Festival
"A bullet pierced my true love's side in life's young spring so early
And on my breast in blood she died while soft winds shook the barley."
-Robert Dwyer Joyce
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a brutal fucking film.
This is exactly as it needs to be, for it is the story of a brutal topic: the war that first ended England's occupation of Ireland in December 1921 and the civil war that broke out months later, and the random depravities conducted by all sides in all the conflicts. Therefore, if I speak of feeling hollow and exhausted at the end, I mean this as the most sincere of compliments. This is a film that makes us feel bad and is supposed to make us feel bad, because at least in its native country, there hasn't been much feeling bad over the blood shed in the Anglo-Irish wars. It is a success along the model of Schindler's List: deeply moving yet painful to watch.
This is established from the very first scene, in which a game that I am too American to identify is interrupted by the Black and Tans, the British soldiers assigned as peacekeepers in Ireland. They line the Irish men against a wall and demand their names, and when one man refuses (cannot?) to answer in English, they beat him to death.
So begins an assault against our basic sense of decency, never to let up for the remaining two hours of the film. It's been famously argued that no movie can be truly anti-war, for movies make war seem exciting; The Wind That Shakes the Barley makes war seem like a sickness - in scene upon scene we are confronted with moments that are not so terrible in their imagery, but completely inhumane in their tone. It is a film with few heart-pounding thrills, few laughs, and a great many sequences that make you want to cry.
The story broadly follows an IRA cell that formed in the aftermath of that first beating, and it rather more closely follows two brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney) who baldly represent the tensions of a country torn against itself. This is hardly an original idea, but in this case it is not any less successful for that. Damien and Teddy spend some 20 months from mid-1920 to early-1922 being tormented by the British and committing moral crimes in the name of freedom.
Most of the controversy surrounding the film has concerned the fact that an English director has taken it upon himself to remind his entire country of the villainy they have perpetrated in the not-so-distant past, and it's impossible to view it without recognizing that Ken Loach is squarely on the side of the Irish Republicans, and rightfully so. But that absolutely does not mean that he gives the whole IRA a free pass. One of the great scenes of the film, perhaps the finest moment in Cillian Murphy's thus-far admirable career, involves Damien shooting an informant who happens to also be a lifelong friend. This act is so vile to Damien that he becomes physically sick in response to it; yet there is no doubt that it was necessary to the survival of the Republicans. Terrible acts that must be done are not therefore made less terrible.
The particular obsession of this film is on idealistic passion, and the ways in which people find meaning by giving themselves over complete to a cause. History, perhaps, is on the side of the Free State supporters whose plan was to slowly remove the English from Ireland, and the film recognizes that while nevertheless sympathizing more with the radicals, the Republicans who wanted to force all traces of Englishness from their country, and according to this film at least, install Socialism. It is not at all practical, yet it is beautiful, because it is based in the conviction that all this suffering must have some justification, and those who do not fight to their last breath are giving up on finding that meaning. They are fools, perhaps - if there were meaning in brutality, it would maybe not be called brutality - but they are very human in their foolishness.
Just as unsparing as the narrative is, so is the film's visual scheme. I have seen nothing of Ken Loach's other films so I can't say how The Wind That Shakes the Barley fits into his career; but I can observe that it is stripped of all but the simplest cues. There is much camera movement, but none of it elaborate (and thank God to once again see a film from the European Union with something less than 25% handheld camera!); nothing framed poetically and no flourishes in the lighting. There are a very few elements of production that are stylistically brave, chiefly the sound design, which is full of overlapping dialogue that fades into pure noise as it gets ever more layered, and the strange intensity of the film's very limited color palette - greens, greys and browns. And as strange as it is to consider an intense grey, that is the very thing we see much of in Barry Ackroyd's cinematography. Even so, these moments of bravado accent the film's general simplicity rather than counter it; for when taken together all of this makes the film itself a brutal tool, intense when it will overwhelm us, and cold and harsh for the rest of it.
As emotionally overwhelming as The Wind That Shakes the Barley so often is, it's not a perfect film. Most noticeably, the score by George Fenton ranges from pleasantly clichéd to insultingly on-the-nose. I've said it so often: I only tend to notice the score when it's bad. And I noticed it. The greater problem is the structure of the story itself: it covers not quite two years but it's often impossible to follow where in those two years we are at any given point. It lurches forward in stops and starts, hopping from one metaphorically laden moment to the next. That's not enough to derail the humanity of the film, nor dull the outrage, but it does make it a bit difficult to follow a plot that's already forbiddingly dense with political history that only Ireland can never forget, England wishes not to remember, and the rest of the world never knew.
For that post title, I shall never stop doing penance.