As an undergraduate, I was privileged to study
Irish history under a brilliant professor, the late
Sidney A. Burrell. Of course, given that my
ancestors hailed from the Emerald Isle, I may
have had a slight predisposition for the course.
But all these years later, I can still vividly recall
the lectures Prof. Burrell delivered and the
reading material assigned. A great deal of the
information came flooding back as I watched
Ken Loach's award-winning feature film
THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY, which
is set in 1920s in rural Ireland. One doesn't
necessarily need to know about history to
appreciate aspects of this movie, but my feeling
is that it certainly helps to recognize exactly
what Loach and his frequent collaborator and
screenwriter Paul Lavery have set out to
achieve. The more one knows about those times
and the struggles of the Irish against the
British, the more one can comprehend the
political discussions and divisions that the
movie depicts.

Of course, there are also contemporary echoes
which undoubtedly helped
THE WIND THAT
SHAKES THE BARLEY
earn the top prize at
Cannes. At it's core, the film basically is about
an imperialist nation that forcibly takes over
another country and sets out to establish a
government that doesn't quite give the natives
control. The oft-quoted George Santayana
noted: "Those who cannot remember the past
are condemned to repeat it." Certainly, there are
parallels between what the British did in 1920s
Ireland and what the USA has done in Iraq in
the first decade of the 21st Century.

For his part, Loach has become known as a
master of contemporary cinema, movies that
raise political and social issues mostly among
the lower classes. Only once before has he
made a drama about an historical conflict:
1995's
LAND AND FREEDOM, set during the
Spanish Civil War and in which Paul Laverty had
a small role. Several critics around the world
feel that particular film is if not the director's
best, then certainly one of his top three. You
won't get any arguments from me; I saw the
film on video in the 1990s and it has exerted a
powerful hold over my conscious all these years.
I would argue a case, though, for
THE WIND
THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY
, which in my
opinion is right up there in the same league.

The film opens in a bucolic setting with a group
of Irish lads engaged in a hurling match. Once
they arrive at the home of one of the players,
though, they are confronted by members of the
Black and Tans, a paramilitary force of British
soldiers. This encounter leaves one Irishman
dead and another, the film's hero Damien
(Cillian Murphy) shaken. About to leave for
London to pursue medical studies, Damien
decides to remain in Ireland and joins up with
his brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) who is a
leader of local rebels. As in
CATCH A FIRE, the
lead character moves from an apolitical stance
to become an insurrectionist. A man who might
be deemed a terrorist suddenly becomes a
statesman if his side is victorious.

Laverty's screenplay is not a simple-minded
exercise, although there is a schematic aspect
to it. He and Loach want to be fair to both sides
of the Irish debate -- should the rebels press
ahead with revolution as Damien comes to
believe or should they accept the partial
independence dictated by the British as Teddy
has come to champion. There are lively debates
over this which some reviewers have found dull
and unengaging but which I confess to find
intellectually stimulating. Perhaps the one
weakness in the film is the lackluster romance
between Damien and Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald).
Sinead is seen on the fringes of the movement
and isn't all that well developed as a character
so the audience's rooting interest for the couple
is nominal at best. That is a minor flaw in a film
that tackles a very intricate story that is still
being played out to this day.

Loach has cast the film well and has elicited
strong performances from his large cast. Murphy
and Delaney are both superb as the brothers
who move from allies with the same goals to
opposing sides with predictably tragic results.
Liam Cunningham is memorable as Dan, a
locomotive engineer who throws his lot with the
rebels.

The film's title,
THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE
BARLEY
, is taken from a poem by Robert Dwyer
Joyce that was set to music and is included
movingly and hauntingly at a wake.

I'm aware that the film will probably divide
critics and audiences but those who are willing
to see this masterful film will not be
disappointed.


Rating:                A-
MPAA Rating:     None
Running time:    127 mins.
THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY
© 2007 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
L to R: Mairtin de Cogain as Sean, Shane Nott as Ned,
Roger Allam as Sir John Hamilton, Kiernan Hegarty as
Francis, Martin Lucey as Congo and Cillian Murphy as
Damien in
THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY,
directed by Ken Loach.
Photo credit: Joss Barratt
An IFC First Take release.