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The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Directed by Ken Loach

Written by Paul Laverty

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Starring Cillian Murphy, Pádraic Delaney, Orla Fitzgerald

Classification: 14A

Rating: ***

The typical Ken Loach film is all about class struggle. But inside that typical film, there's a war within the war, a further struggle between his social realist style and his strong political voice. The one is anti-heroic and deflationary, the other tends towards the ardent and the elevated. When the two arrive at an internal truce, Loach makes gripping movies in the finest kitchen-sink tradition. When they don't, he makes speeches. In The Wind That Shakes the Barley, the good fight continues and victory is at hand - at hand, but not quite within his grasp.

This time, he's back in Ireland again, all the way back to 1920 and all the way out to a rural backwater in the south, where guerrilla war is waging, terror doing battle with counterterror. There, the opening sequence shows Loach at his most stylistically impressive. As it pans over a field where young men are playing hurly, the camera strips (deflates) the Irish countryside of its tourist-book charm to display something far more interesting: There is beauty, yes, but it's a rough beauty, and the rugged land makes for a hard living.

Hard too is the tight band, no more than five or six, of British Black and Tans who thud onto the scene, their rifles drawn and their sergeant bellowing. As they line up the local boys in front of a farmhouse, the Brits' intentions are abundantly clear - to harass, to humiliate, to strike fear. It works. The kids quake, their faces either a frozen mask or a nest of convulsive tics. Only one resists, and passively at that. When his name is demanded, he answers in Gaelic, but that transgression is enough to get him beaten to a bloody pulp. The entire sequence is awfully compelling (and compellingly awful) precisely because Loach uses his style to inform the content - in this war, the scale is small, heroism is scarce, and the methods are as brutal as they are brutalizing.

Now the plot kicks in and, alas, proves to be a schematic exercise conveniently centred on a pair of siblings. Politicized by the bloodshed he has witnessed, Damien (Cillian Murphy) abandons his medical career to join an IRA "flying column" led by his brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney). So the healer turns to hurting, and soon masters the art of death - gunning down enemies outside and in, foreign occupiers and native traitors alike. The violence begotten from violence continues until a truce is declared, a moment that unfolds with a wonderfully Loachian touch. The news arrives not with fanfare and cymbals but in the cowed form of a frightened little boy, peddling his bicycle too fast and fumbling in his pockets for a crumpled page bearing the historic message. Another note of realism, superbly muted.

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Of course, the signed treaty with Britain divides the Republicans and, predictably, pits brother against brother. Insisting it's a shameful sellout, Damien continues to wave the IRA banner; calling it a necessary compromise, Teddy joins the new Free State army - now it's a civil war. Like most revolutions, this one has begun to eat its own, leading to a pat climax that parades by with the same military precision as the overall narrative. No, what intrigues us here isn't the tale but the manner of its telling.

For example, the central love interest between Damien and the indomitable Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) is a little rushed and a bit wan. However, at the edges of the frame, Loach offers peeks at the role taken by women in the struggle - from gathering intelligence and hiding arms to serving as judges on the Sinn Fein courts. His direction of the entire ensemble is also nicely in keeping with his trademark style. The actors are often made to stumble over their lines, their characters rendered clumsy with passion or silent with rage. Again, the cliché of Irish oratorical eloquence is traded in for the simpler truth of farmers' sons struggling to articulate a swirl of emotions, confused and conflicted when deeply felt injustices collide with starkly played politics.

As for his continuing interior battle, Loach makes his own compromise in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, such that the thematic journey through the big story often seems trumped by the small yet penetrating insights along the way. Still, that's a compromise worth signing on to - this is a war film with an anti-epic feel, best when it forgoes the forced march of plot to hunker down in the trenches of our flawed humanity.

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