Atmospheric but pedestrian, it is a retelling of the classic tragedy of all civil wars, from the U.S. to Vietnam to England, where brother is pitched against brother.
The film looks handsomely authentic, and the familiar characters are engaging, but the story is predictable and the Irish accents are so thick that even English subtitles are required. Loach's humanity is always in evidence, however, and the lack of histrionics will please many, so the film's conventionality could help make it accessible to general audiences.
The British in the film are nameless cardboard villains used mainly to establish just how horribly occupying forces behave. It's such a common device to make audiences root for the rebels that Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty might have been cleverer about it. But it works, and Damien O'Sullivan (Cillian Murphy), who in 1920 is about to leave his Irish village to become a doctor in London, has his fate sealed by two incidents of British brutality that make it impossible for him to leave.
After centuries of domination, the Irish have voted for independence and so the British send in ruthless military squads, known as the Black and Tans, to intimidate the population. Mostly survivors of World War I trench fighting, the soldiers have been brutalized themselves, a point Loach allows to be made.
Damien's brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) is a man of action, and he's devoted to the cause of Irish freedom. Led from afar by the political faction that became the Irish Republican Army, Teddy leads a group of village boys and men who call themselves a "flying column."
Training as guerilla fighters with pieces of wood shaped like rifles, the column spends most of its time trying to steal weapons. These raids bring reprisals that hit not only the rebels but also their womenfolk. Damien's sweetheart, Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald), has her hair crudely and bloodily sheared in one assault.
The story follows the group through the truce that was declared in 1921 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in 1922 that created the Irish Free State out of 26 counties, with six other counties forming what became Northern Ireland remaining as part of the U.K.
As with all rulers that strive to divide the conquered, the British make sure the Irish Free State remains a part of its empire and require an oath of loyalty to the king. Those who view the treaty as a path to peace, like Teddy, don the British uniform. Those who insist that freedom will only come with complete republicanism, like Damien, continue the fight. Their tragedy becomes inevitable.
Loach provides plenty of time for arguments on all sides of the political issue, and while that is important, those scenes slow down the film badly. He stages the many action sequences with assurance, however, and draws persuasive performances from his cast.
With his poet's cheekbones and blue eyes, Murphy makes a fine romantic hero, and Delaney is a match as his duty-bound brother. Liam Cunningham, too, stands out as a thoughtful train driver-turned-rebel. Contributions from cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, production designer Fergus Clegg and composer George Fenton are all first-rate.THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY
Sixteen Films, Matador Pictures, Regent Capital
Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriter: Paul Laverty
Producer: Rebecca O'Brien
Executive producers: Ulrich Felsberg, Andrew Lowe, Nigel Thomas, Paul Trijbits
Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd
Production designer: Fergus Clegg
Editor: Jonathan Morris
Composer: George Fenton
Damien: Cillian Murphy
Teddy: Padraic Delaney
Dan: Liam Cunningham
Sinead: Orla Fitzgerald
Peggy: Mary Riordan
Bernadette: Mary Murphy
Micheail: Laurence Barry
Finbar: Damien Kearney
Leo: Frank Bourke
Rory: Myles Horgan
Chris: John Crean
Sir John Hamilton: Roger Allam
Priest: Denis Conway