The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

reviewed by
David N. Butterworth


THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY
A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 2007 David N. Butterworth
**1/2 (out of ****)

Ken Loach couldn't make an apolitical film if he tried. And with "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" he's not even trying.

Starting with 1967's "Poor Cow," Loach has single-handedly championed the cinema of British socialist realism (with perhaps some in-roads made by fellow filmmaker Mike Leigh), films about the working-class struggling under the regime of a callous and corrupt government. Loach wears his political armbands high atop his shirtsleeves; his films are gritty and determined and conscious, often so heavily-accented they could benefit from subtitles--his 1990 English-language film "Riff-Raff," about the trials and tribulations of a bevy of London bricklayers, was indeed released that way in the 'States.

"The Wind That Shakes the Barley" could certainly use some such visual aids in assisting the casual viewer in making out its thick Irish accents, which blanket the film like damp peat moss on a Kilkenny moor. It's definitely *not* a sequel to "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle..."

Set in Ireland in 1920, Loach's latest tells the story of two brothers, Damien ("Girl with a Pearl Earring"'s Cillian Murphy) and Teddy O'Donovan (Padraic Delaney), caught up in the turmoil of the times, as freedom fighters battling the unwelcome British soldiers--the Black and Tans--sent to block their neighbor's bid for independence. Damien, an impressionable young doctor, is about to leave for London to start on a promising medical career but instead decides to join his brother's guerrilla brigade--the fledgling IRA--after witnessing the British atrocities firsthand.

Like many of Loach's films, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" has a sober, authentic, down-to-earth feel to it--the director often casts unknowns to help foster that sense of realism. The effectiveness of the piece, however, is weakened somewhat by Paul Laverty's screenplay which, especially in the film's first half, flip-flops between the two warring factions and the results of their mêlées: the British troopa single out some Republican sympathizers who have broken the law by congregating together, either to worship, drink, or drum up a rough-and-tumble game of hurling, and make examples of them. The mercenaries fight back, often under cover of darkness, before it's the British soldiers' turn to retaliate--back and forth it goes with much bloodshed and bloodletting in the interim. A truce is eventually established but it's shortlived, and the torture continues unabated--you might want to cancel your manicure appointment after seeing this one.

Strength--and a little bit of recognition--comes in the slight, County Cork-born form of Murphy, whose character provides the film with the lynchpin it needs and deserves. Murphy, last seen as a flamboyant transvestite in Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto," continues to associate himself with an eclectic bunch of film directors among them the afore-mentioned Jordan, Wes Craven ("Red Eye"), Christopher Nolan ("Batman Begins"), Anthony Minghella ("Cold Mountain"), and Danny Boyle ("28 Days Later..."); he can now add Loach to that already impressive list. Murphy grounds the film, dragging us through it whether we like it or not.

And it's a hard film to like, or be entertained by. But Ken Loach doesn't make entertainments. He makes brazen political statements. "At best a film can add its voice to public outrage," asserts the defiant 70-year-old filmmaker. And "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" does that. In spades.

--
David N. Butterworth
dnb@dca.net

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