'The Wind That Shakes the Barley' Poses Questions That Haunt Us Still

Officially opening in New York, Los Angeles and Boston on March 16, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" presents a painstakingly intimate look at the citizen soldiers who fought the British to a standstill en route to a still bloodier civil war. The film, by British director Ken Loach, does so with artistry and finely wrought drama.

'The Wind That Shakes the Barley'
Poses Questions That Haunt Us Still

The Irish 'Troubles' have proved a powerful draw to filmmakers through the decades, and Ken Loach visits them for a second time in this hardhitting, awards-winning film.

By Patricia Jameson-Sammartano and
Gerry Regan / TheWildGeese.com

The film's poster for the U.S. market puts a tight focus on the star power of Cork-born actor Cillian Murphy.

British-born director Ken Loach presents a lush, but unsettling, portrait of 1920s Ireland in his latest film, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," opening in New York, Boston and Los Angeles on March 16, and nationwide via cable on demand. The film, anchored by a sterling performance by Cork native Cillian Murphy and a strong ensemble of other Irish actors, is a stunning evocation of both Ireland's War of Independence and the debacle represented by its subsequent civil war.

Like other recent movies set against "The Troubles," such as Neil Jordan's "Michael Collins," Loach's film asks, why, and what if. Why did the Irish accept The Anglo-Irish Treaty that ushered in decades of additional strife throughout Ireland? And what if people made different choices? Loach and "Barley" hint at answers, which are ultimately unknowable. And the film does so with grace, intelligence, and striking emotional impact.

"Barley" has rightfully garnered many honors since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last May, including the Palme d'Or, awarded to the film deemed the festival's finest. Alas, the film wasn't eligible for this year's Oscars, which required a U.S. release in 2006. The production budget was about $8 million.

The film, whose title is drawn from a 19th century Irish folksong, drew more Irish eyes last year than all but Disney Picture's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and James Bond blockbuster "Casino Royale." It lured controversy as well, something the outspoken Loach readily draws. Dublin-born writer Ruth Dudley Edward described "Barley" as "a travesty of history" and wrote of Loach "… what is truth in the hands of this Marxist propagandist?"

What we see in 'Barley' is how the war forced ordinary people to do extraordinary, heroic and sometimes repulsive things.

The cinematography is superb, and the idyllic setting, filmed in West Cork, provides a counterpoint to the savage violence of the fighting. Barry Ackroyd, the director of photography, credits the Irish weather with softening the light, and working with the mist.

Paul Laverty's screenplay tells several stories -- that of the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, the role of women in the freedom struggle, the thuggery of British imperialism during those harrowing years, but most strikingly the obscenity of brother turned against brother.

The movie begins in the summer of 1920 in Ireland, with a group of Irish lads playing hurling, with reckless abandon, on a pasture amid the splendor of the West Cork mountains. It's an innocent, happy scene; Damien, the protagonist, splendidly played by Murphy, is leaving his pals, going to London to further his medical career. Damien and his friends walk to the farm house of Peggy, a survivor of Ireland's Great Famine, her daughter, Bernadette, and granddaughter Sinead, portrayed by Orla Fitzgerald in a remarkable performance that captures both the strength and vulnerability of women caught in the conflict.

The film quickly takes an ominous turn as the house is raided by the so-called "Black and Tans," the most notorious of the paramilitaries Britain recruited to combat the Irish insurrection. In a chaotic scene, unleashing fear and anger (in the audience, too), the Tan patrol tries to humiliate the men, alternating brutality and ear-splitting shouting. One of the lads refuses to say his name in English, and is taken into the family's modest thatch-covered house and beaten to death. With this one scene, we come to understand the stakes both for the characters, and for the Irish people.

Photo by Joss Barratt
The setting of "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" amid the picturesque hills of West Cork creates a counterpoint to the violence of the Irish insurgency dramatized by director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty.

The savagery of those moments becomes a motif running through "Barley." The incident also marks a turning point for Damien; he increasingly questions whether his medical career is important or even relevant anymore. Though skeptical that the IRA can succeed, Damien joins his brother, Teddy, portrayed in a star turn by Padraic Delaney, and Damien's life-long friends in the local "flying column," as the guerrilla units were called. Veteran character actor Liam Cunningham deserves mention as well for his convincing turn as IRA comrade Dan, a hard-bitten railroad engineer and survivor of the 1913 Dublin lockout and 1916 Easter Rising. Damien finds Dan's talk of a new Ireland, with opportunity for all, persuasive.

What we see in "Barley," through the artistry of Loach, Laverty, and an extraordinary ensemble cast of actors and recruited locals is how the war forced ordinary people to do extraordinary, heroic and sometimes repulsive things. By the film's end, one has confronted, in a visceral, transformative way, the wages of centuries of British domination of Irish life, culture, and governance.

The fateful Anglo-Irish Treaty gives the British a face-saving way out, and forces the Irish to fatefully choose sides, for or against the treaty and its oath to the Crown and division of the country. Damien, his brother and their comrades are left to work out their differences, and with the eruption of civil war we see how Irishmen quickly came to do the work of the British in blunting the nation's yearnings for complete sovereignty. Dan, seeing a former comrade in a Free State uniform, says: "Kick out the Black and Tans. … Bring in the Green and Tans." Ultimately, the film's blend of history and artistry, abetted by a devastating conclusion, constitutes a powerful reverie on the tragedy of Ireland's partition. WGT
Watch the tralier here: "The Wind That Shakes the Barley"


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