4 stars (out of four)
Ken Loach's great, tragic "The Wind That Shakes the Barley"--which won the Palme d'Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival--takes its title from a 19th Century ballad by Robert Dwyer Joyce; one stanza of which ends: " The mountain glen/ I'll seek at morning early/ And join the brave united men/ While soft winds shake the barley." Joyce's words, sung at a funeral in the film, seethe with a mix of pain and idealism, an undertow of plaintiveness and lament. And they distill the essence of Loach and writer Paul Laverty's film, which is set during a relatively brief time in the Irish guerrilla wars against the British, from late summer 1920 through the treaty signing of December 1921 and its aftermath. It's about the brave men in the rustling barley and morning light, and the bloodshed and fratricide that inevitably await them, especially the brothers Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney).
"Wind" is a beautiful film, harrowing, tough and rife with grief, and it uses the cloud-veiled Irish countryside as a backdrop for a truly sad tale of the time when the battles were fought, the Irish Free State was formed, the British left part of the country and the Irish rebels, formerly united against the English, finally splintered into factions of various political hues and began killing each other.
Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty (who tackled Irish politics before in the more contemporary "Hidden Agenda"), choose one of the most wounding of dramatic metaphors. Two brothers, Damien and Teddy, fight together but wind up, murderously, on opposite sides. That doesn't happen quickly; for most of the film they're fellow revolutionaries, before the treaty is signed and they break apart.
In the beginning, Teddy is the activist soldier and Damien is the civilian, on his way to London to practice medicine, escaping the turmoil of his native land. What stops him, after a hotly contested curling match, is an army attack on the farmhouse of old Peggy (Mary Riordan), her grandson Micheail (Laurence Barry) and her granddaughter Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) by the British Black and Tans, who roust out the family and club Micheail to death. Soon afterward, Damien's train is interrupted by another fight when the unionized train workers refuse to transport British soldiers and the train driver, Dan (Liam Cunningham) stands up to the English.
Damien's mind is made up. He lets the train leave without him, joins the Irish Republican Army and becomes enmeshed in the cycles of violence. The rest of "Wind" shows the battles and arguments waged by Damien, Teddy, Dan and their f lying c olumns, assassinations and executions on both sides, a precious few love scenes between Damien and Sinead and the final turnabout, after the treaty. The doctor, who hates violence and death, won't stop short of his own. The soldier Teddy becomes an apostle of compromise. The cycle, we can see, can't end here . Murphy, whose soft dark eyes, virile yet delicate features have made him a movie heartthrob, suggests Damien's softer, darker nature. Delaney projects a soldierly rationalism that turns to anguish. As is Loach's habit, the rest of the cast includes amateurs from the area, who speak in thick dialects and contribute to an ensemble haunted by death and tears.
What the film ultimately says is that the horrors of war cannot be assumed lightly--even though the Irish were right to revolt and the British wrong to occupy their land. It also says, typically for Loach, that the Irish and English working classes have more in common with each other than with aristocrats like the film's haughty informer Sir John Hamilton (Roger Allam).
Loach ("Land and Freedom," "Kes") is one of the finest political filmmakers in the world, and an unusually stubborn one. He maintains a radical stance to this day, even as now, the prospects for peace, via a power-sharing agreement, are on the upswing. But "Wind" is no socialist tract. The movie is about the collision of political principles and human bonds and values, and it doesn't treat any of them lightly. Loach is on the side of the revolutionaries, but there isn't a moment of violence in the film that glorifies it or makes it exhilarating. Even though this is a period film, a grim, clear-eyed realism informs every scene. That's Loach's method. He's the master of the docu-drama or the realist social film, and "Wind" is one of his masterpieces.
'The Wind That Shakes the Barley'
Directed by Ken Loach; screenplay by Paul Laverty; photographed by Barry Ackroyd; edited by Jonathan Morris; music by George Fenton; production design by Fergus Clegg; produced by Rebecca O'Brien. An IFC First Take release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:04. No MPAA rating (adult: parents cautioned for violence and mature themes).
Damien - Cillian Murphy
Teddy - Padraic Delaney
Dan - Liam Cunningham
Sinead - Orla Fitzgerald
Peggy - Mary Riordan
Bernadette - Mary Murphy
Sir John Hamilton - Roger Allam