The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

Dir. Ken Loach. Starring Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham

The Wind That Shakes the Barley raises an interesting question: how, within a revolutionary movement, do we distinguish from the men of principle and the men who want power? It is certainly not apparent at the outset that Teddy O’Donovan (Delaney) will turn heel. When Teddy and his section of the IRA are captured due to a mix of treachery and negligence early in the movie, he is the one who has all of his fingernails ripped off. Despite that torture, Teddy never gives the English the names of other leaders or the location of some weapons, and he returns to the field without doubts or reservations. How to explain, then, his willingness to be a partitioned Ireland, only dominion under the United Kingdom and bound by loyalty to the king he had been fighting for years? He quickly becomes one of the most important men in the new regime, deciding that for the good of Ireland he must stamp out all resistance to the dominion even if that means fighting the people he used to fight with.

Loach has an interesting solution, a telling test which leaves little room for doubt in our heads as to the leanings of a character. In one scene, an older woman is in court as defendant. She owes a great debt to a local loan shark named Sweeney who, it’s discovered, has been charging totally exorbitant interest. The court, in a surprising move, decides in her favor; Sweeney must pay her damages of better than ten shillings. Teddy sides with Sweeney, who is a key source of weapons for his brigade. His brother, Damien (Murphy), and some others side with the court. Who did we get into this for? Damien and his sect ask. One man, Dan (Cunningham), goes to a couple of the boys in the room who side with Teddy. How much money is in your pockets? he asks them. They’re reticent, but eventually they reveal that between them they have little more than a shilling. Dan asks the boys to think about the woman with the debt as if she were their mother, who is just as dirt poor. Loach’s test (or Paul Laverty’s test – he was the credited screenwriter) is a good one. See if the revolutionary sides with the poor or with the powerful once he has some power worth maintaining; when you see his choice, you know how he’ll lead when the bullets stop flying. All the way down the line, Teddy opts for the man with the weapons, the capital, and the indifference to the poor. When he does so again once he is no longer an outlaw but the law, it no longer surprises us. (To his credit, Loach makes Teddy’s sympathy for Sweeney totally shocking within the moment it happens; it feels like we’re watching a different person as the argument between Teddy’s faction and Damien’s faction unfolds.)

The test has a corollary in the film, although it’s a little less effective as a means of prediction within the movie itself because Teddy’s fingers are still healing when it happens. If you tell a man to kill his friend in service of the cause, will he do it? Teddy, Damien, and some of their friends are lucky to escape from the military jail where they’re being held; one of the soldiers is Irish enough to know he doesn’t want the deaths of fellow Irishmen on his conscience. His key doesn’t work on every door, and they are forced to leave behind three soldiers in a cell. The IRA rapidly makes its move. They locate the landowner who contacted the authorities about them, a Sir John Hamilton (Roger Allam), as well as the IRA member who cracked under pressure and gave him the appropriate information to betray his fellows. Chris (John Crean) and Sir John are taken to a remote spot in the mountains; their only hope to live is that the English government will choose to save the three IRA members. When that hope is crushed, Sir John and Chris are sentenced to death, to be executed by Damien, who has the responsibility while his brother is recuperating. Sir John goes first. Chris is a little harder to manage, as Damien grew up with him and has considered him a friend for many years. But Damien, driven on by the order from above and his sense of duty, does his job. Damien is a man of principle whose principles are given a much rougher shaking than Teddy’s; losing fingernails to a pair of pliers is no small thing, but Damien has to stare down a lifelong friend and kill him without even an option for clemency. When the time comes for him to make a similarly principled stand, Damien makes it sadly but not regretfully. He has already been through his crucible.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is, though both were released at Cannes not two years distant from each other not as starkly realistic as Hunger, which is set sixty years later and in a different part of the country. The Wind That Shakes the Barley nevertheless aims to be fairly true to life, relying on relatively simple settings and situations. There are many green hillsides in the film, most of which are useful for cover for IRA soldiers picking off unwary reinforcements for the Brits. Much of the action returns to a stone farmhouse, whose women seem to constantly be in trouble with the Black and Tans. Interiors are lit realistically, often in yellow-green haze. But there is fantasy all over The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and that fantasy is best exemplified by its discussions about politics.The Wind That Shakes the Barley is more vocally political than the average film, which seems like it should be profoundly obvious until it eclipses your expectations about what a political movement can look like. Battleship Potemkin is political because of a carriage falling down steps; The Wind That Shakes the Barley is political a full five minutes of the film are devoted to people standing around and yelling at each other about whether or not socialism is right for the new Ireland. What begins as a discussion about whether or not the treaty adequately frees Ireland from the British yoke (which it obviously does not) very rapidly, thanks to Damien and Dan, becomes a talk about giving people economic opportunities in Ireland which have been totally absent in the past and which will continue to be limited under the new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss system. Characters take turns giving monologues about the martyrs of the cause, the oath the IRA soldiers swore upon entry, the plight of the people in Northern Ireland, the tantalizing nearness of achieving all of the goals they set out to achieve. Dan literally takes out a piece of paper from his pocket and reads a sentences-long quote from the First Dail. (He seriously keeps that in his pocket?) It’s not hard to believe, necessarily, that the men and women of the story would want to talk about those kinds of things at the close of hostilities. It’s just something about the way it’s done, where everyone has their own paragraph and a half to say, where no one interrupts, where all bases are covered, where each person is standing in their own small island within the room. It recalls a sort of allegorical style of telling and it does not really match the burned houses and bloody bodies of the previous stretches within the film. As a fictional story which does not pull its visual punches and which makes strong tacit statements through character’s actions, it’s something of a disappointment for the film’s characters to talk their way through the turning point of the film.

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