Forget the twist, Judge Ben Saylor is doing the Barley Shake.
War has cost them their innocence…Freedom will cost them their blood.
Independent film stalwart Ken Loach (Hidden Agenda) turns his eye to the strife in 1920s Ireland in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, an unflinching, unromantic film that won the 2006 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Grittily shot with an excellent cast and a strong script that nonetheless sometimes allows the political to overwhelm the personal, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is an unforgettable look at the cost of war.
Facts of the Case
Ireland, 1920. Young doctor Damien (Cillian Murphy, 28 Days Later) is about to leave for London to practice medicine when he witnesses instances of brutality from British Black and Tan squads. Instead of leaving, he joins his brother, Teddy (Pádraic Delaney), in resisting the British forces. Together, the brothers and their comrades fight the British until a treaty is signed. The agreement, which establishes a Free Irish State that nonetheless remains a dominion of the British Empire, is strongly divisive, and soon Teddy and Damien find themselves at odds, with Teddy supporting the treaty and Damien bitterly opposing it.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is the product of a director who has been making renowned films for decades. Loach, at 71, shows no sign of slowing down. Nor has he lost his edge, as he shows with Barley.
Loach's film shows how ideological differences can tear not only nations, but also families, apart, as represented by Teddy and Damien. The brothers, once comrades-in-arms who would gladly have laid down their life for the other, are put on opposing sides of a brutal civil war by the treaty. Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty (who has written several films for Loach) take care not to favor one brother over another. It is as easy to understand Damien's desire for an Ireland completely free of English authority as it is to understand Teddy's feeling that the treaty is a necessary step on the road to eventual independence, and that without it the British would make good on their promise of "immediate and terrible war." It could be argued that the film is unfair to the British, as they are all portrayed as cruel, barbarous men, but often the tactics of the Irish Republicans aren't much better. A scene where the Republicans execute one of their own for being an informer reminded me of a similar scene in Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows. Although the two directors shoot their respective sequences differently, the effect is the same. The Republicans are very much part of the oppressed people, but how can they be expected to prevail if they can't keep from killing each other? Even if they do win in the end, what will that victory mean if the pro-treaty soldiers resort to the some of the same methods employed by the British? The film's ending illustrates the sad reality of Ireland's division very poignantly, if a bit predictably.
Loach's filmmaking approach serves the material well. His loose, observational shooting style allows the viewer to become a fly on the wall, and gives off the sense that we as an audience are eavesdropping on these characters' lives. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (like Laverty a longtime Loach collaborator) seems to be shooting with lots of natural light, with a generally muted color palette; most of the outdoor scenes are overcast and drab, reflecting the film's somber tone. In addition, Loach allows the actors to stutter and stumble over their lines, rather than call "cut" and have them do it again. This works very well, because when the actors trip on their lines, it's usually when their character is upset about something. Many people lose their composure when upset, causing their speech to break up, so this touch gives the film added authenticity. Loach also utilizes overlapping dialogue with many conversations, rather than the "My turn, your turn" school of line delivery. Characters frequently talk over others, especially during arguments.
Loach's cast is excellent as well. Murphy gives a forceful performance as Damien. It's very compelling to watch him transform from a quiet doctor into a hardened man of action. Murphy is physically suited to the role; his dark, perpetually frowning eyes powerfully convey his sadness and anger with the situation in his country. Delaney is equally as effective as Damien's more political brother. Delaney's Teddy is calmer and more pragmatic than his passionate brother is, and it's interesting to see his shift from confident leader to despondent pro-treaty soldier. During the post-treaty scenes of the film, the once proud, confident Teddy can scarcely meet the eyes of his loved ones.
In the supporting cast, the only real standouts were Liam Cunningham (Dog Soldiers) as Dan, a former train driver turned Republican soldier, Orla Fitzgerald as Sinead, Damien's love interest, and John Crean as Chris Reilly, the young informer. Cunningham makes for a likable, charismatic figure, and his character plays an important role in several pivotal scenes. Fitzgerald, while given less to do, nonetheless makes a vivid impression as the strong-willed Sinead. Crean, in a small role, is incredibly effective, and gives a very naturalistic performance (The film marks Crean's acting debut).
Although most of the Loach DVDs I own don't have much to offer in the special features department, the film's Palme d'Or seems to have spurred Genius Products to spring for some extras. First up is a commentary track featuring Loach and historical advisor Professor Donal O'Driscoll. Loach tends to dominate the proceedings, discussing everything from an actor playing a bit character to the location a scene is shot in to the historical basis for different parts of the film. The director also frequently addresses the controversy this film ignited, particularly with the right-wing British press, which blasted the film's portrayal of their soldiers. Loach's response is that he actually could have gone farther with the brutality if he had wanted to, as the British were even worse than portrayed in the film. O'Driscoll chimes in every now and again to elaborate on a topic Loach is discussing. Overall, this is a very thoughtful, engaging commentary track, with only sporadic, brief gaps in the discussion.
But the real surprise of this disc is the documentary Carry On Ken: A Look at the Work of Director Ken Loach, a fascinating film that runs nearly 50 minutes and features an impressive array of figures talking about Loach and his work. At first, I thought this was going to be a standard tribute piece where everyone says nice things about the director and how great his films (particularly the one on the DVD) are. To my surprise, near the 15-minute mark, the documentary switches gears by showing Loach's life from his youth through his days of directing theater and working at the BBC, and finally turn to his work as a film director. Among those who appear in the film are Robert Carlyle (who made Riff Raff and Carla's Song with Loach), Peter Mullan (star of Loach's My Name Is Joe), Brian Cox (star of Loach's Hidden Agenda), Murphy, Laverty, Ackroyd, Cunningham, and longtime Loach producer Rebecca O'Brien. All of them share some interesting and often amusing stories about Loach, who, it seems, has a penchant for surprising his actors on the set. Loach himself appears frequently in the feature, and it's very interesting to gain insight on his working methods. One key example is that he likes to have his crew be as invisible and in the background as possible, in order for the actors to forget they're in a film and behave more naturally. He will often shoot at far distances with long lenses to achieve this end. While it starts out rocky, Carry On Ken is a must-see for Loach fans.
A theatrical trailer rounds out the special features (There are several previews that play before the main menu, but they are not in the special features portion of the disc). The film is presented in a solid transfer that preserves the film's drab color scheme, and renders Ackroyd's natural-looking cinematography very impressively. The sound is fine as well; dialogue is audible, and the music and sound effects all come through nicely.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My sole complaint about this film is that Laverty places too much emphasis on the political side of the story, giving the personal side short shrift. Damien and Sinead's romance isn't given any time to develop, so they're never entirely believable as a couple. In addition, most of the supporting characters, except the ones I mentioned earlier, tend to fade into the background. We don't learn a lot about them, so it's hard to get worked up when some are killed in the struggle. Teddy and Damien's relationship also suffers due to Laverty's failure to strongly flesh out their characters and relationship. However, the acting and technical aspects of the film are so strong that the story and themes are still engaging.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a mature, expertly made movie that deftly portrays a seminal moment in Irish history. Loach and his team have crafted a thoughtful movie that will resonate with the viewer long after it's over, despite some flaws in Laverty's script. To make a long story short, this is a great film from a great director.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Theatrical trailer
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