Thematically complex, emotionally powerful and brutally un-romanticized, Ken Loach‘s The Wind That Shakes the Barely is a towering portrait of the Irish War of Independence and is one of the prolific director’s best films. While hardly objective in its treatment of history (all of the British figures are defined only by their anonymity or their savagery) Loach’s film is deeply intuitive regarding the complexities involved with revolutionary action and the effects of war on both a nation and an individual.
Set in 1920, Barley focuses on a nation in crisis. The Irish have been pushed to the breaking point as their homes, rights and lives are continually threatened by the brutish agents of the crown. Their Parliament is a proverbial puppet, the right to assembly has been stripped and the British army continually threatens any expression of autonomy with unchecked brutality. The main action begins when the Irish do what most oppressed people do after being continually kicked in the teeth: They fight back. Leading this charge is Teddy O’Donovan (a great Padraic Delaney) a man’s man and, more reluctantly, his physician-turned-fighter brother Damien, played wonderfully by Cillian Murphy. Right from the beginning the film uses the differences between the two brothers as a framing device to explore how the Irish Revolution was as much a struggle to imbue Irish society with greater equity as it was to expel a foreign occupying force.
Barley represents Loach working at the height of his artistic powers. It presents a story of war where, for many fighting it, the motivations are linked to economics as much as to ideologies. With the assistance of his frequent collaborator Paul Laverty‘s powerful script the film functions as something much more than a simple portrait of a specific time and place. The story asks several fascinating questions, but respects the intelligence of the audience by not sugar-coating or spoon-feeding them with easy answers. What is the cost of absolute devotion to a cause? What are the compromises that must be made during the course of a revolution? Finally, if your revolution is successful, what comes after?
All of these questions are presented with nuance and panache for the characters (and by extension the audience) to grapple with. However, Loach’s film isn’t simply effective in exploring vast, sociological themes related to Irish civilization during this period. The film also works strongly as an intimate character study. This quality can be attributed to the performances. As the central character, Damien, Murphy is phenomenal and his character’s metamorphosis from pragmatic outsider to passionate revolutionary is the epitome of an epic character arc. From his obstinate rejection of the British’s half-assed treaty to the tenderness and vulnerability he displays with his co-star, Orla Fitzgerald, (who’s excellent) Murphy deserves huge credit for turning in a performance which feels real. Not to be outdone Padraic Delaney, as Teddy, is enormously effective in showing the complicated nature of his character’s relationship with Murphy’s and the heartbreaking effects of the revolution on that relationship.
As strong as the character development is, Loach doesn’t allow for the story to take a back seat or for the actors to ever usurp the importance of the film’s thematic material. Similar to Terrence Malick, in The Wind That Shakes the Barley Ken Loach’s aesthetic oftentimes places the environment front and center. The film features the immense landscapes of the Irish countryside (lushly captured by Loach’s frequent DP Barry Ackroyd) with the human characters being little more than plodding ants. Also, Loach’s hand is felt in certain scenes where other directors would linger or feel the need to inject the scene with abrasive sentimentality. Instead, under Loach’s ingenious blade the film simply cuts away with silence and staggering power.
Barley cannot be taken as a valuable historical document of the Irish War for Independence. However, as a cinematic portrait of the motivations behind the revolution, its transformative effects on the psychology of a society and the crying, broken women its violence left behind, it is indeed sublime.