In 1920, rural Ireland is the vicious battlefield of republican rebels against the British security forces and Irish Unionist population who oppose them, a recipe for mutual cruelty. Medical graduate Damien O'Donovan always gave priority to his socialist ideals and simply helping people in need. Just when he's leaving Ireland to work in a highly reputed London hospital, witnessing gross abuse of commoners changes his mind. he returns and joins the local IRA brigade, commanded by his brother Teddy, and adopts the merciless logic of civil war, while Teddy mellows by experiencing first-hand endless suffering. When IRA leaders negotiate an autonomous Free State under the British crown, Teddy defends the pragmatic best possible deal at this stage. Damien however joins the large seceding faction which holds nothing less than a socialist republic will do. The result is another civil war, bloodily opposing former Irish comrades in arms, even the brothers.Written by
The remarkably low rating that this film has so far received (4.1 as of Thursday 8th of June) is indicative of its ability to raise the hackles of people who haven't even seen it. How can it be otherwise when the film has not yet been released? 135 people have voted; have all of these 135 people actually watched the film? Of course not. They're just voting on the basis of their perceptions or assumptions concerning its political agenda. IMDb voters are not alone in this; already Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph, Dominic Lawson in The Independent, Ruth Dudley-Edwards in The Daily Mail and Michael Gove in The Times are attacking a film they haven't seen (by their own admission). These attacks are the predictable reaction of empire apologists unable to abide the depiction of the dark and brutal underside of that imperial machine, or the suggestion that anyone on the receiving end of that brutality might be justified in rebelling against it. The title of Dudley-Edward's lazy hack-job says it all, really: 'Why does Ken Loach loathe his country?' Loach is a traitor, and must be punished, the rotter.
It's a pity that this political controversy seems poised to overwhelm discussion of the film, because it's an extremely able piece of cinema and deserves to be seen as such. Barry Ackroyd's cinematography is superb, ably capturing the beauty of the Irish countryside without indulging in it. We are rooted in a locale without being lavished with pretty pictures. The acting is also excellent. The charismatic Cillian Murphy carries the movie, but the support from Liam Cunningham, Orla Fitzgerald, Aidan O'Hare and Padraic Delaney is also commendable.
But it's the collaboration between Loach and his scriptwriter Paul Laverty that makes the film something like a masterpiece. The grim progress from the murder of an Irish youth to the growth of an armed I.R.A. campaign, with its attendant violence (shown in stark and horrifying detail) is expertly managed; the only let-up comes not far from the end, after the signing of the 1921 peace treaty. Loach tries to show the brief jubilation and relief that ensues, but in terms of momentum almost drops the ball. The pace is re-established in time for the inexorable tragic denouement, and the film's final emotional impact is considerable. The load is occasionally lightened by the odd touch of Loach's characteristic wry comedy, such as the belligerence of the opening hurling game, the teenage message-boy who loses his message, the melodramatic pianist accompanying the newsreel announcing the momentous news of the creation of the Free State.
One of the most disturbing scenes occurs when a group of I.R.A. men return from a successful battle and discover a farmhouse being attacked and destroyed by a group of British soldiers. The rebels, who have no ammunition left, are forced to look on, concealed in the bushes; they watch powerless as the farmhouse's inhabitants are abused. We watch along with the characters, just as helpless as they are. Why do we watch? Do we want to intervene, to play the hero and save the day? Do we perhaps enjoy it? The trouble with many so-called anti-war films, as Loach has said, is that they outwardly condemn the violence while at the same time encouraging (intentionally or not) a vicarious pleasure in the thrill of it all. We want to take part, we imagine how we would behave in such circumstances (of course, we usually imagine ourselves behaving with impeccable bravery and surviving to fight another day). This scene, rather than placing us in the thick of the action, forces us to occupy the position of impotent bystander. Perhaps this is what being a film-goer is all about: powerless voyeurism. As we watch the country tear itself apart in civil war, manipulated by a devious and callous colonial master, this point becomes all the more pertinent. A quietly devastating film.
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