It is a bold, intrepid filmmaker who dares to throw open Pandora’s Box and take on a film that deals with The Troubles of Northern Ireland. With The wind That Shakes The Barley, director Ken Loach, no stranger to tackling controversial issues, and long-time screenwriting partner Paul Laverty fearlessly step up to the challenge, unleashing a fiercely political picture that is surely designed to ruffle a few feathers.
This incendiary tale of upheaval and rebellion stars Cillian Murphy as Damien O’Donovan, a Cork man who becomes involved with the Irish Republican Army during the Tan War and subsequent Irish Civil War of the nineteen-twenties. The young doctor abandons a promising medical career to take up arms against the ruthless Black and Tan squads sent from Britain to block Ireland’s bid for independence, the impact of their deplorable behaviour on his village proving too much for many to tolerate. Damien’s enervation is shrewdly illustrated as the lively, exuberant camaraderie of the picture’s opening hurling competition is abruptly terminated by the arrival of the tyrannical British soldiers, shrilly barking orders at terrified locals. As the Tans brutalise a young man for refusing to answer in English, the helpless villagers’ awful sense of confusion is palpable, echoing the disorientation that outsiders to the reality of The Troubles will doubtlessly share. A ferociously affecting overture, it plunges us deep into the inescapable reality of a nation in conflict.
Damien is sworn into the flying column brigade commanded by his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney), and the struggles of these crusading siblings form the emotional backbone of Loach’s conscientious depiction of the effect this conflict had on small communities. As the signing of the Anglo-Irish Peace Treaty of 1921 splits the nation, with many refusing to pledge allegiance to a British monarchy, Laverty’s screenplay astutely turns brother against brother. Teddy becomes a Free State officer, while Damien pledges allegiance to the anti-treaty IRA, placing the two on an agonising collision course.
Loach’s film is mercilessly confrontational and unapologetic in its depiction of violence, exploring the lengths men will go to for their beliefs. As Damien ruefully guns down a friend-turned-informant, cascading emotions flicker across his anxious visage. Pulling the trigger with thudding finality, we understand he has come too far to turn back.
A degrading attack on the community, where Damien’s lover Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) is beaten, her hair humiliatingly shorn by the Tans, we are forced to watch from the helpless viewpoint of the despairing rebels. Hiding on a hillside, we share in the horror, desperately unable to intervene, a cruel reflection of the realities of war.
The violence is blunt, bloody, real, with one blood-curling moment seeing Teddy interrogated by aggressive inquisitors who gleefully claw at his fingernails with rusty pliers. As fellow prisoners, roused by his caterwauling defiance, chant Republican anthem ‘The Boys of the Old Brigade’ in solidarity, we are left in doubt as to where Loach’s sympathies lie. For the outwardly socialist director, all occupiers are aggressors, which may prove too troublesome for some viewers to swallow.
However unpalatable Loach’s version of ‘The Truth’ may be for some, the director’s realist style certainly lends an authoritatively authentic feel to proceedings. There is a refreshing lack of craic, blarney and Guinness-quaffing, while the use of remorselessly dense Cork accents delivered by predominantly untrained, unknown actors brings a sense of truth lacking from so many cinematic depictions of the Emerald Isle.
Many scenes appear unscripted and improvised, as when union official Dan (Liam Cunningham) stumbles and stutters through an impassioned speech on the implications of the Treaty. Such adroit methods seduce us into viewing history through Republican eyes, the picture’s beautifully realised, convincing period detail successfully immersing us in lives of these complicated souls.
Our experience is anchored by a commanding, emotional performance from Murphy. His is a face that expertly channels sadness, anger and frustration via the intense hues of his beautiful, yet fatigued, unfeasibly blue eyes. Though Damien’s swift transformation from unsure, mild-mannered doctor to dedicated guerrilla soldier never completely convinces, the Cork native is nevertheless a powerful, arresting presence, fluctuating between calm contemplation and frightening vein-popping intensity. When, with a defiantly aloof swagger, Damien attempts to mask his torment at executing the informant, he is betrayed by the heart-rending, wounded confusion of Murphy’s trembling, cracked intonation, providing one of the film’s most profoundly affecting scenes.
Unfortunately, though Murphy impresses, the film’s brother versus brother plotline feels contrived, as Loach never bothers to really take us inside Teddy and Damien’s relationship. Similarly, Damien’s romance with Sinead feels like an afterthought, tacked-on almost, as another succinct reminder that the IRA are real people with feelings too.
Most problematic, however, is the merciless depiction of the Black and Tan troops, to-a-man portrayed as irredeemable savage, sneering bullies who see the natives as subhuman scum. Though historical accounts indicate that the real-life colonial soldiers were far from squeaky-clean, through relentless scenes of forceful intimidation and reprehensible torture, the Tans are very deliberately never afforded a humanity allowed to the Irish characters. The mercenaries are made all too easy to hate, assaulting defenceless women and haphazardly firing bullets at villagers’ houses with a casual air of effrontery. With little insight or explanation into their psyches, Loach is crucially cartoonish in his depiction of the Brits, making this feel, sadly, like complex, historical allegory boiled down to a simplified tale of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies.’
Loach plays a dangerous game, not in sketching the Republican Army as sympathetic, living, breathing, vulnerable human beings, but by painting his portrait with such broad brushstrokes of black and white. His film is admirable in its intentions to present a thoughtful, considered view of the IRA, but lamentably, it is a shamelessly unbalanced account. There is much to admire and enjoy, especially in tense, riveting, glimpses of stealthy, guerrilla warfare, but in letting his head rule his heart, the director falls slightly short of the greatness we know he is capable of, evidenced in the hard-hitting triumphs of ‘Sweet Sixteen’ (2002) and ‘Kes’ (1969). Though Loach spins an affecting, gripping tale, the straightforward ‘Truth’ he presents defuses much of the potency of his astute, considered political commentary. War, sadly, does not provide such simple solutions.