Friday, March 16, 2007

The Wind That Shakes the Barley - Movie Review

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

“I sat within the valley green, I sat me with my true love
My sad heart strove the two between, the old love and the new love
The old for her, the new that made me think on Ireland dearly
While soft the wind blew down the glen and shook the golden barley”

- by Robert Dwyer Joyce

Is Ken Loach the best unheard of director working today? Well, according to the numerous international film awards he’s received over his four decades long career, he very well might be. Beginning with his startling feature length film debut in 1967, the wonderfully unsung “Poor Cow” (Well, unsung by all save Steven Soderbergh who dared to make a sequel of sorts some thirty two years after, the very underrated “The Limey” which we think is one of Steven’s best. Go rent both!), Ken Loach has dared to dwell among the bottom feeders of modern moviemaking subjects – the working man. Throughout the years, he has tackled issues of poverty, racism, politics, abuse, alcoholism and all around nasty bits of everyday life that most folks would rather see swept under their Ikea rug than plastered onto their neighborhood movie screen. And so, for most moviegoers, Mr. Loach has escaped the fame and notoriety of legions of his less talented compatriots. Pity.

While the movie masses may return empty stares at the sound of his name, Ken Loach has certainly not escaped the eyes and ears and thunderously clapping hands of his peers, critics and international film festival panelists who have awarded him the top honors at the Berlin International Film Festival, the British Independent Film Festival, the César Awards, the European Film Awards, the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival and of course his handsome showing at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival where seven of his movies have earned laurels and in 2004, he walked off with the 30th Anniversary Prize of the Ecumenical Jury for his entire body of work! (And Lord knows when it comes to Film Festival juries, the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes is our favorite. For their name alone.)

His latest film to win the top honors at Cannes, has finally arrived, almost a year after its win. Nice. A bloody fucking year of sitting through crap like Disneyfied pirates and Chevy Chase remakes. Frigging film distributors. In any event, we are thrilled to report that the wait has been well worth the honor of sitting in a darkened theatre and watching “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, Loach’s look at the Irish fight for independence from England.

Cillian Murphy, who might very well be the most talented actor of his generation (he has our vote after his brilliant and varied turns in “Breakfast on Pluto”, “Red Eye”, “28 Days Later”, “Batman Begins” and “Cold Mountain”), headlines the period piece as Damien O’Donovan, a budding young doctor who is planning on furthering his studies in England until one too many encounters with the thuggish “Black & Tan” goons leads to a moral awakening. He realizes that his beloved country and mates need him more than the British medical establishment.

He decides to take the fateful step of joining the Irish Republican Army, alongside his brother Teddy, played by one fine doorful of a man by the name of Padraic Delaney . . . whew! (That’s it, pack our bags, we’re County Cork bound!)

Together with assorted mates and roughs, including the very fine actor Liam Cunningham as the elder statesman of the group, Dan, the Irish rebels launch small but keenly felt attacks against the bullying Brits that are terrorizing their countryside. And terror is indeed the word. For daring to speak in their native tongue of Gaelic qualifies one poor sod to a beating so brutal it snuffs the life out of him. The message is clear: the Irish are nothing but second rate animals in the eyes of the British army.

Now, while other directors may have focused on the epic struggle for freedom through the eyes of a legendary historical figure like Neil Jordan did in “Michael Collins”, Ken Loach approaches the material with his trademark viewpoint of the working man. In this case, the two brothers who will come to symbolize the divided nation’s internal bickering between the degrees of freedom they will eventually receive for their sacrifices.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley” is an extraordinarily powerful film in its brilliant use of subdued violence. Not that there is a lack of bloodshed here, but rather it is not the focus. While we never see the vicious beating given to the young lad who refused to speak in English, we are made more than aware of the horrible aftermath. The scenes that do contain exchange of bullets are mercilessly swift and punctual, as if to mirror the tactics of surprise and efficiency on the part of the IRA. This is a film that longs to depict violence as abhorrent, rather than sensual.

There are many reasons to enjoy “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”. The uniformity of fine performances, in particular from Murphy, Delaney and Cunningham. The fine use of the rural Irish landscape to frame the bloody fight for freedom. While Loach’s approach never ventures too far into Malick territory, the lushness of the Irish green and the quiet villages that dot the horizon offer a curiously becalming setting for a tale of guerrilla warfare. While we’re not recommending that every film focusing on warfare be set inside a picture postcard, it does honor the history as well as provide brief shelter from the storm.
A storm of righteous indignity against their second class citizen status, which causes great heartbreak amongst the clan when they are forced to turn on their own. If ever the absurdity of war lent itself to a storyline, this is it. For how does one engage in guerilla warfare without endangering the lives of innocents? An impossible situation. For every step they gain against the Brits, they are forced to sacrifice an ally or member of their support network.

But Loach is not satisfied with merely depicting their brave struggle for emancipation. The film reaches a midway point that is startling in its shift of attitudes and pacing. For suddenly, out of the blue the British seem to have acquiesced to their demands. A “Cease Fire” has been declared and Ireland earns the right to be recognized as the Irish Free State, consisting of twenty six of its thirty two counties. The only catch was, that England retained the right to govern them and every Irishman had to swear an oath of allegiance to good King George V!

Hardly the stuff worth dying for, in Damien’s eyes. His brother Teddy however, seems to recognize that this might be all they could hope for under the Empire’s firm grasp. And so, brother goes to war against brother as Damien returns to the rebel forces and Teddy joins the newfound Irish military, under the rule of England. It is here that the film falters, but thankfully never completely falls. For in discussing the various political angles, machinations and complexities; Ken Loach’s famed improvisatory manner with dialogue and actors sells the movie short. Briefly! In order for us to accept that brother would fight brother at this stage of the game, it would have required a beautifully scripted scene that could handle the emotional as well as the historical divide. Sadly, there is not. What we get instead is a series of truncated complaints and declarations of wounded pride that may feel emotionally honest on the part of each actor, but do little to strengthen their position in our minds.

Thankfully, the film will recover once it continues its well crafted depictions of warfare, this time with the required emphasis on the interpersonal. As Damien and Teddy plunge headfirst towards their inevitable doom, we are carried along on the crest of their passion and fortitude. We care for these men, and their shattered relationship. The ending more than earns its tears and bloodshed, even if it had to struggle up that final hill. We encourage you to see “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, whether it is for the obvious parallels to the present day world warfare culture or to take a slice of history home with you. A bloody and oft times painful slice to swallow, but a decidedly cinematic one. Bless you all!

Directed by Ken Loach
Written by Paul Laverty

Cillian Murphy as Damien
Padraic Delaney as Teddy
Liam Cunningham as Dan
Gerard Kearney as Donnacha
William Ruane as Gogan
Kieran Aherne as Sweeney
Roger Allam as Sir John Hamilton
Laurence Barry as Micheail
Sabrina Barry as Julia
Frank Bourke as Leo
John Crean as Chris
Máirtín de Cógáin as Sean
Keith Dunphy as Terence
Orla Fitzgerald as Sinead
Kiernan Hegarty as Francis
Myles Horgan as Rory
Bill Hurst as Major of the British Army
Damien Kearney as Finbar
Fiona Lawton as Lily
Martin Lucey as Congo
Mary Murphy as Bernadette
Shane Nott as Ned
Mary O’Riordan as Peggy

Cinematography by Barry Ackroyd
Film Editing by Jonathan Morris
Original Music by George Fenton
Costume Design by Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh
Production Design by Fergus Clegg
Art Direction by Michael Higgins and Mark Lowry



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